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BRING IT ON

by: James Berardinelli

Filmmakers are clearly running low on subject matter for sports movies. Somehow, however, that doesn't stop the projects from being greenlighted, so, over the years, just about every sport or pseudo-sport has been used as the subject of one of these films. And, while it's a stretch to call cheerleading a "sport" (despite a "fact sheet" published by Universal Pictures arguing the contrary), it slides as neatly into the formula as ice skating, gymnastics, or dancing.

The difference with this film, and the reason it occasionally qualifies as a guilty pleasure, is the approach of director Peyton Reed, who is making his feature debut after years of television work. Reed never takes the material too seriously, and there are stretches when he has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Although there are instances when the humor is overt, Reed predominantly relegates his satirical edge to a low-key, background element - he has a great deal of fun toying with the characters and their situations. The screenplay, credited to Jessica Bendinger, is full of painfully trite dialogue; Reed gets his actors through some of these scenes by creating a self-consciousness about the silliness of the lines they're saying. (Two examples: "My entire cheerleading career has been a lie!", "Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded.")

Alas, Reed's creativity doesn't extend to all aspects of his film, and that's where the generically titled Bring It On gets into trouble. As with all sports movies, there's a competition to be won or lost. However, as it is presented in this movie, there's no tension or suspense about who's going to emerge victorious. In fact, winning seems irrelevant. It's not a big thing for the director, the characters, or, by extension, the audience. Even openly campy parodies of the genre, such as Strictly Ballroom, offer a climax with more energy and spark than the lackluster finish of Bring It On. No matter how enjoyable other elements of the movie might be, the ending leads to an inevitable sense of dissatisfaction.

Bring It On is set in San Diego's Rancho Carnie High School, where the football team is a laughingstock but the cheerleading squad has won five consecutive national championships. Now, under their new captain, career cheerleader Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst), they're going for title #6. When a member of the team breaks her leg, Torrance holds tryouts to replace her. The winner is a transfer student to Rancho Carnie, a gymnast named Missy (Eliza Dushku), who is dubious about cheerleading but willing to try because the school doesn't have a gymnastics program. Everything seems to be going fine until Missy clues Torrance into a dirty little secret - Rancho Carnie's routine has been stolen from that of a rival school. Now, with time running out before the Regionals, the Rancho Carnie Toros are forced with the unenviable choice of learning an entirely new program or facing public embarrassment when they do the same routine as the East Compton Clovers.

For his cast, Reed has selected a group of appealing young actors and actresses. Rising star Kirsten Dunst (recently seen in the anemic Drop Dead Gorgeous and the infinitely better The Virgin Suicides) may have gotten this job based solely on her flat stomach, dimples, and perky attitude. Co-star Eliza Dushku, whose biggest movie role to date was as Arnold Schwarzenegger's daughter in True Lies (but who is best known for her recurring role as Faith in TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer), is equally easy on the eyes. Ditto for Jesse Bradford, who plays the male love interest. However, while all of the girls on the cheerleading team are physically fit, they also appear to be borderline-anorexic. I'm not sure what kind of message this is sending, if it's sending one at all, but there is a point at which girls who are too skinny lose their attractiveness, and more than

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