This is not to say that being a cheerleader isn't hard work above and beyond dodging the advances of all the Kevin Spaceys and Ted Bundys of the world. Anyone who has ever worked in customer service knows how hard it is to remain perky and cheerful for three straight hours; doing that while jumping up and down and balancing precariously on a colleague's outstretched arm has to require great skill and practice. These women (and guys, too) are indeed athletes. So why not use them as fodder for a sports movie? The porn industry has already exhausted most of the other possibilities, after all.
Well, Bring It On isn't exactly a sports movie. It also isn't quite a titillation movie. It's sort of a parody, but not really, because it takes the requisite athletic ability seriously. But it's never quite clear whether director Peyton Reed means to mock or praise, to the degree that a key character's emotional low point receives howls of laughter from the audience. And yet the film is infectious, like one of its many original titles, Cheer Fever. It grows on you. It's even self-aware enough to begin with an audacious cheer routine that actually apes American Beauty in parts, while the girls chant such lines as "I swear I'm not a whore" and "You can look but don't you hump." Hell, the name of the high school they attend is Rancho Carne.
Kirsten Dunst plays Torrance (also known as Tor; nothing like evoking memories of a bald Swedish wrestler-turned-Ed Wood protégé when naming one's daughter), who is voted head cheerleader when the retiring Tori Spelling-esque Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) goes away to college. Over the objections of her brattier squadmates ("This is not a democracy -- it's a cheer-ocracy!" "You are being a cheer-tator!"), she hires on the new misfit transfer student, Missy (Eliza Dushku, Faith on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who, being from LA, is totally goth and well versed in physical combat. Unfortunately, Missy also brings with her the source of the film's conflict -- the revelation that Big Red stole all the squad's routines from a high school in East Compton ("I know you don't think a white girl made that shit up," declares that school's head cheerleader). On the other hand, she does have a sexy brother who likes the Clash ("Is that your band or something?" wonders Tor) and who, despite being in high school, looks old enough to have been a fan while the band was still touring.
Among the film's more amusing conceits is the idea that although the cheerleading squad are award-winners, the football team absolutely sucks, consisting of glazed-over dummies who address everyone as "Fag" before high-fiving and laughing moronically. And the dialogue comes fast and furious; there may be one too many variations on "She puts the 'itch' in 'bitch'; she puts the 'ass' in 'massive'" and so on, but there are also some surprisingly smart throwaways, like when Tor tries to get her father to sponsor the South Central team by sarcastically addressing him as "Mr. Level Playing Field."
Unfortunately, there is a complete lack of tension, mainly because there aren't any antagonists, and every problem seems to be promptly solved with a group hug. The South Central team are nice people and deserve to win, but we don't know enough about them to fully root for them. We know more about Tor's team, but can we really root for the rich whiteys to crush the dreams of inner-city youth, no matter how much we may like Kirsten Dunst?
Bring It On will fade from memory very quickly but is pleasant while it lasts, and it does make a case that cheerleaders are more than, as one character puts it, "dancers who have gone retarded," if not always by much.
Opens Aug. 25.