As pure a bubble gum movie as can be imagined in this cynical age, “Bring It On” routinely tries to make heroes of cheerleaders, the most mocked of high school groups. Conceived to find a new angle in cheerleading subculture, pic is actually part of a trend, following the slightly naughty “But I’m a Cheerleader” and the bump-and-grind antics in “The Replacements.” It’s also part of a larger tendency this year toward tales of eager, innocent youth who could easily exist in the Eisenhower era. Whether target teen aud is finally tired of trends, and whether Kirsten Dunst has nascent star appeal, will be tested. Expect barely passing grades.
There are hints here and there of a more devilish sense of humor in Jessica Bendinger’s script, in which cheerleading squads — one from the rich white San Diego ‘burbs, another from poor black East Compton — battle like sports teams for the national cheerleading competish crown.
Sense of edginess appears before opening credits, as Torrance (Dunst) has a Busby Berkeley-styled nightmare in which she loses her top during a goofy squad routine, which includes lines like, “I swear we’re not whores!” (Bit is marred, though, by glimpse of Dunst’s strapless bra when she’s supposedly lost her top.)
It’s all part of Torrance’s anxiety about being selected captain of Rancho Carne High Toros cheer squad — reigning national champs — in wake of departing topper Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) and Torrance’s cheerleader b.f. Aaron (Richard Hillman), who’s thrilled to be attending Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Torrance wins the election against bitchy rivals Courtney (Clare Kramer) and Whitney (Nicole Bilderback) while having domestic battles with snotty younger bro Justin (Cody McMains). After a squad member breaks her leg, tepidly comic audition for a replacement leads to recruiting above-it-all but highly skilled transfer student Missy (Eliza Dushku), who’d rather be doing gymnastics if school only offered sport (a dubious problem, given Rancho Carne’s affluence).
Torrance locks eyes with Missy’s outsider-type bro Cliff (Jesse Bradford), but her heart remains with Aaron, even as he’s cheating on her at Dominguez Hills. First big crisis occurs when Missy storms out of practice, telling Torrance that the Toros’ routine is a total rip-off of one by the East Compton High Clovers, led by smart, competitive Isis (Gabrielle Union).
A visit to Clovers’ campus convinces Torrance that “my entire cheerleading career has been a lie!”; unable to convince her squad to drop the routine, Torrance and Co. are humiliated at a game by Isis and her Clovers, who make a surprise appearance.
Comic tone moves in two jarring directions care of tyro helmer Peyton Reed: There’s the sweet side, shown in a nice wordless scene between Torrance and Cliff brushing their teeth together in a kind of hygienic flirt, and there’s the broad side, typified by appearance of cheer squad coach-guru Sparky (Ian Roberts), a Bob Fosse wannabe who terrorizes the squad and leads to a scandal at the regional championships.
Realizing she’s been conned by Big Red, Aaron and Sparky, spunky Torrance pushes her team to come up with a whole new routine in two weeks before the nationals, aired by ESPN2 in Daytona. Thoroughly unconvincing conflicts with Cliff lead to further complications, but they’re smoothed over like lip gloss by the time trophies are handed out.
Pic succeeds in displaying the physical drive and demands of cheerleading, underlining it with the irony that the Toros squad is way better at what it does than their Clippers-like football team. Reed and editor Larry Bock miss a golden opportunity to make the turns, flips and dance steps into something kinetically thrilling, as if too much style would mar pic’s rather plain-wrap look.
Still, closing contest between Toros and Clovers reps a close facsimile of real thing, which is aired annually on ESPN’s sister network.
In a disappointing comic turn after her mysterious persona in “The Virgin Suicides,” Dunst can’t really hold pic together, showing too much thesping sweat in her efforts to make Torrance likable. Poor chemistry with Bradford is another key flaw; for a guy with some apparent attitude and deep thinking, Bradford’s Cliff is rendered nearly blank onscreen.
Dushku leaves a strong impression, as does the charismatic Union, whom the camera loves. Lensing and other tech credits lack some of the color and zap that would have given teen fantasy a bubbly look.