Mena Suvari

Many will dismiss "Sugar & Spice" as a mindless teen pic, which is too bad because the latest addition to the cheerleader subgenre is actually quite a smart little film. First-time feature helmer Francine McDougall and writer Mandy Nelson have crafted a funny, unconventional sendup of angst-ridden high school life in middle America.

Many will dismiss “Sugar & Spice” as a mindless teen pic, which is too bad because the latest addition to the cheerleader subgenre is actually quite a smart little film with a surprising satirical edge. First-time feature helmer Francine McDougall, who hails from Australia, and writer Mandy Nelson have crafted a funny, unconventional sendup of angst-ridden high school life in middle America.

The humor flags a tad in the final reel of this tale about football team cheerleaders who moonlight as bank robbers, and pic would’ve been even more memorable if the personalities of the cheerleaders had been fleshed out a bit. But there is a welcome irreverence to the proceedings, and the filmmakers deserve top marks for resisting the temptation of tacking on the standard-issue moral finale that would prove crime doesn’t pay.

“Sugar & Spice” will likely speak to the same young femme auds that snapped up tickets for “Save the Last Dance” and “Bring It On,” rousing up fairly good early returns, but its offbeat humor may keep it from crossing over further.

From the start, it’s clear the elite A-Squad cheerleaders at Lincoln High School are not your garden-variety pompon shakers. Diane (Marley Shelton) is almost psychopathically upbeat, endlessly repeating feel-good truisms and quoting from the sacred cheerleaders’ rule book. Kansas (Mena Suvari) is a foul-mouthed rebel who is dealing badly with the fact that her mother (Sean Young) is doing time in the local jailhouse for killing her dad.

Then there’s Hannah (Rachel Blanchard), who is accurately described as an “uber-Christian” and is fond of bringing every conversation back to what she learned in Sunday school that week. Lucy (Sara Marsh) is the “geek extra-ordinaire” whose only dream is to make it to Harvard, while Cleo (Melissa George) has a very different dream that involves leather furniture and Conan O’Brien (a running gag in pic).

When Diane falls for the school’s universally adored star quarterback Jack Bartlett (James Marsden), the universe appears to be unfolding as it should. But things take a turn for the traumatic when they announce to their stunned parents that they’re getting married — and Diane is pregnant. Pretty soon, Jack and Diane have been disowned by their families, they’re holed up in a seedy apartment, and Jack is forced to make ends meet by taking orders at fast-food joint Senor Guacamole.

Diane announces the pregnancy to her colleagues by reverentially quoting Madonna’s ode to young motherhood, “Papa Don’t Preach,” but her positive outlook is eventually strained by their cash-strapped circumstances.

Diane, always the organizer, decides the girls should take to armed robbery to make some dough, and they prepare for the heist by renting some famous holdup pics, notably “Reservoir Dogs,” “Heat” and “Point Break.”

The only hiccup in the A-Squad’s well-laid plan is disgruntled B-Squad cheerleader Lisa (Marla Sokoloff), who happens to be at the bank when the girls rob the vault. They’re wearing rubber “Betty” masks, but Lisa notices an “illegal dismount” during the highly choreographed robbery and realizes it’s her hated rivals pulling the heist.

One of the more endearing aspects of “Sugar & Spice” is the girls’ warm camaraderie. With these gals, somehow it seems natural that they would suddenly start robbing banks to help a friend in need. Still, fuzzy feelings are refreshingly spiked throughout with nonstop ribbing of the characters, and Nelson’s script is an equal-opportunity mocker, making fun of virtually everyone onscreen.

There may not be any particularly brilliant insights into the teen girl’s mind here, but the playful satire is never dull, and there is no shortage of laughs along the way.

Pic isn’t exactly a great showcase of acting skills, and the supporting players in particular are given little room to shine. Shelton is good as the ridiculously peppy but still smart Diane, Marsden is funny as the rather slow-witted sports star with a heart of gold and Sokoloff delivers an extraordinary number of variations on the sneer as the permanently peeved Lisa. Suvari has sassy charm in her second recent turn as a teen cheerleader, following “American Beauty.”

McDougall and lenser Robert Brinkmann have given the pic a comic book, hyper-realist look with garish colors, bright lighting, and almost surreal suburban settings, and fast-paced action is revved up even further with soundtrack heavy on femme-flavored rock numbers.

Sugar & Spice

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Wendy Finerman production. Produced by Wendy Finerman. Executive producers, Claire Rudnick Polstein, Matt Moore, Greg Mooradian. Co-producer, Michael Nelson. Directed by Francine McDougall. Screenplay, Mandy Nelson.

Crew

Camera (color, wide-screen), Robert Brinkmann; editor, Sloane Klevin; music, Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Jeff Knipp; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; art director, Maria Baker. Reviewed at Paramount Cinema, Montreal, Jan. 26, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Diane Weston - Marley Shelton Jack Bartlett - James Marsden Kansas - Mena Suvari Lisa - Marla Sokoloff Hannah - Rachel Blanchard Cleo - Melissa George Fern - Alexandra Holden Lucy - Sara Marsh Mrs. Hill - Sean Young Hank - W. Earl Brown

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