Bring It On
Director: Peyton Reed. Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku, Jesse Bradford, Gabrielle Union, Clare Kramer, Nicole Bilderback, Tsianina Joelson, Nathan West, Huntley Ritter, Shamari Fears, Natina Reed, Brandi Williams, Richard Hillman, Ian Roberts. Screenplay: Jessica Bendinger.

One of the more viperish cheerleaders in the new high-school farce Bring It On advises Kirsten Dunst's character, "Don't play dumb—we're better at it than you." Her words are ironic, at least in a loose Morissettean sense, partially because no one in her age range is better at playing dumb (and not actually being dumb) than Kirsten Dunst. Another reason is that Bring It On is, indeed, better at playing dumb (and not actually being dumb) than any movie on the summer docket. In fact, it might be the best, the smartest, and the most fun teen comedy since Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which means it's smarter than it looks, than it needs to be, or than it's likely to get credit for. This issue of credit is key here, and not only because the movie is, in a way, about the value of paying people their due and responding to exhibited skill instead of generic preconceptions. Moreover, the fact that Bring It On is so willing to seem like a trifle and show you a good time is part of why the movie surprisingly proves even more fun and well-sustained than Amy Heckerling's durable Clueless, the new film's only rival for title of Best Recent Teen-Queen Dream Seen on Screen. Clueless, for all its bevy of charms, is just a little too preoccupied with flaunting its highbrow origins, and too uncertain in its third act of how to resolve them; it's a pretty front-loaded entertainment, which is maybe why I've seen the first half, like, seven times, and the second half only three or four.

Bring It On, meanwhile, like its star, is so comfortable in its sports bra and pom-poms that it doesn't need to call attention to its amazingly adept treatment of race, which is ultimately what makes this confection as interesting and expectation-defying as it is. But first, don't let me academicize the fun out of this pop tart of a film. Dunst stars as Torrance Shipman, who has just inherited the captainship of the Rancho Carne High School cheerleading squad from a commandant senior named Big Red (Lindsay Sloane). Torrance, positive that she can lead the Toros to their sixth consecutive championship at the national cheerleading competition, soon confronts such a series of misfortunes, she is sure she really did suffer a curse when she—dare I say it?—dropped the spirit stick at last summer's cheerleading camp. First, a crucial member of the squad falls and breaks her leg (or is it sprains her back?) during the first practice. Second, a pair of sassy pretenders to Torrance's throne (Nicole Bilderback and Clare Kramer, looking very Mena Suvari-ish) keep undercutting her authority and spreading dissension among the ranks. Third, her boyfriend Aaron (Richard Hillman), who has just left for college, isn't always much better at validating her efforts and abilities.

As if that weren't enough! Fourth, the men on her squad are tired of constantly defending their heterosexuality—especially since they might not all be heterosexual. Fifth, in a desperate attempt to replace the stricken woman, Torrance has to convince a dred-locked, sharp-tongued Garofalo type named Missy (Eliza Dushku, of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and True Lies) to complete the ranks in time for Nationals, which are barely more than a few weeks away. Sixth, most of the world, including Torrance's own parents, doubt whether she can count this high. Seventh, and worst of all—no, the problem isn't that the football team crumbles so often that the loudspeaker informs fans of the date of their next defeat. One of Bring It On's quick but savvy moves to free itself from expectations is to verify that the cheerleaders are estimable athletes, in no way subservient to or dependent upon the gridiron boys, who totally suck. "The games are like practices for us," swears the ultra-confident Torrance. Instead, the truly troubling revelation, which Missy brings to Torrance's attention in a well-timed visit to the primarily black East Compton High School, is that Big Red and her hench-cheerers had been pilfering Compton's routines for years and winning trophies with their plagiarized impersonations. Isis (Gabrielle Union), the captain of the Compton squads, assumes Torrance is up to more of the same when she spots her at their gym, and she declares official war on the Toros, a campaign she expects to win by leading her troupe to a victory at Nationals.

"It's only cheerleading," Missy attempts to reassure Torrance. "I am only cheerleading!" Torrance snaps back, and it is to the movie's credit that we both laugh at her and feel for her as she says it. Torrance, who is neither particularly smart nor embarrassingly stupid, knows that cheerleading is all she's good at, but she also has certainty that being a good, honest cheerleader is harder than people think, and she refuses to rehearse the routine her squad has practiced for months—unbeknownst to them, yet another lift from the Compton repertoire. Her initial attempts to resolve the problem by hiring a choreographer named Sparky (Ian Roberts) result in even greater embarrassment, not to mention one of the few sequences in which Bring It On's many laughs are all predictable. More often, though we aren't talking comic revolutions here, Jessica Bendinger's screenplay generates plenty of amusing lingo and fresh variations on the theme of toothless bitchiness to keep the actors and the audience happy. Torrance informs the naysayers on her team that Missy is being recruited, against their wishes, because "this is not a democracy, it's a cheerocracy, and I'm pulling rank" Even Courtney, one of the vixens who resist Torrance's "cheertatorship"—their word, I assure you—gets to act the crass, sluttish bimbo with some crackling one-liners, as when Torrance reveals that their routine is stolen, and Courtney responds, "I hate to be predictable, but I don't give a shit!"

Then there are the one-liners with real sting, as when Lava (Shamari Fears), a member of the East Compton squad, asks Torrance following their show whether "the ethnic festivities were to your liking today." As I mentioned earlier, Bring It On not only handles the issue of race with maturity, sophistication, and humor, the plotline is so well-developed one forgets Bring It On didn't need to go near this tender subject—nor those of class disadvantage and teen homosexuality—if it didn't want to. The Compton Clovers can't get to the competition without money, and for a moment, Bring It On looks as though it will be content to have Torrance's deep-pocketed dad foot their bill as a conciliatory gesture. However, where such overpraised elephants as The Green Mile and The Cider House Rules went terribly wrong, Bring It On steps nimbly on-point, refusing to tell a tale of white liberal guilt saving helpless African Americans from their circumstances, and Learning Something in the process. It is a truly thrilling moment, though played with utter lightness, when Isis rips up Torrance's check, particuarly as it becomes increasingly clear that Bring It On will not require her to "swallow her pride" and realize she "should have" taken it, or something unbearable like that. Critics like Roger Ebert, who slammed Bring It On for "condescending" to its black characters and then praised the awfully retrograde Legend of Bagger Vance for its grace and elegance, clearly saw different films than I did, or else live in different galaxies.

Again, Bring It On amazes not just for its political sophistication but for its refusal to beg credit points for being smart. The movie never pauses to honor anyone for their benevolence or linger on anyone's awakening consciousness. In large part, the movie just wants to boogie down, and the colorful compositions, hip-hop and guitar-driven soundtrack, and buoyant performances keep the energy high throughout. The film is also helped immensely by winning, deceptively effortless performances from Dunst, Dushku, and Jesse Bradford, all grown up from Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill, whose Paul Rudd-ish underplaying and dreamy side-smiles as Missy's brother and Torrance's new crush should have Freddie Prinze Jr. running scared for his career. (Except, then again, you get the sense Bradford wouldn't want to star in smug, hyperthin trifles like She's All That.) Director Peyton Reed even shows great visual sense, and a startling confidence to drop dialogue entirely when he wants to, which results in two priceless scenes: a short one of Dushku prancing in her doorway, surprised how good it feels to first don the cheerleader uniform, and a longer cross-cutting of bashful looks between Dunst and Bradford as they brush their teeth the first time she sleeps over at the Pantone household—innocently, mind you, in Missy's room.

What else, can I say here, folks? Bring It On certainly has its foibles, and even its dynamic cheerleading routines, which alone are worth a tiny price of admission, involve an ironic bit of visual cheating: not only does the best team win, they get the most flatteringly mobile camera shots to supplement their athletic vitality. There's also at least one joke, involving a male cheerleader's finger, that went nowhere I wanted to go. Still, no one's more surprised than I that Bring It On qualifies as one of the dozen best new films I've seen this year, and may still count as such by the time 2001 rolls around. I loved watching this movie, loved laughing with it, loved admiring it, loved wondering when I'd watch it again. Gimme a B+!

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