Stick It” doesn’t. The use of the prim but rigorous world of women’s gymnastics as a setting for teen rebellion is so strained it leaves the pic’s ode to personal authenticity feeling as phony as a dubious decision by a competition judge. Pushing forward the smack-talking, competitive spirit that auds enjoyed in her script for “Bring It On,” writer-director Jessica Bendinger peppers the screen with musicvid-style spark even as her dialogue falls flat. Girls will teem the multiplexes for at least the opening frame, but pic’s shortage of sheer fun could dampen the final B.O. score.
One thing “Stick It” proves — as if further proof were needed — is the continued reliability and engagement that Jeff Bridges brings to his roles. In a part he could easily have phoned in, Bridges gives the movie its only genuine pulse as a gym coach known for his hard and manipulative ways.
A character that could have been a bully or worse in another actor’s hands is a complicated soul in Bridges’ — too complicated, in fact, for the pic to really know what to do with him.
The film certainly doesn’t know what to do with Haley (Missy Peregrym), first seen being arrested for causing major property damage while performing free-styling biking stunts in a Plano, Texas, suburban development.
The gruff Haley is a repeat offender who turns out to have been one of the country’s most gifted gymnasts before throwing it all away two years prior by walking out on her team during world championships.
Now, her options are juvie prison or something called “VGA” — the Vickerman Gymnastic Academy in Houston, run by the no-nonsense Burt Vickerman (Bridges).
At first, Burt’s sleek, massive factory for little gym medalists looks like a refreshing shift from the standard high school setting of countless teen movies, but the tale becomes quickly routine. Scowling Haley must contend with the living stereotype of a goody-good teammate Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), who calls the ostracized Haley “Pariah Carey.”
Haley knows she’s good, but hates the sport’s silly rules and picayune details that weigh propriety above sheer athleticism and style. Burt understands this, and if “Stick It” had taken this core idea and run with it in an original way, a charged comedy about youth-inflected sports and attitudes could have emerged.
But Bendinger opts for a truly inane third-act stunt: Revolting against the judges’ annoying scoring, the girls stage mass forfeits so that only one competitor will be left in each event, thus removing the judges’ power.
Such badly conceived anti-establishment strokes might win over the most impressionable auds, but the film appears to throw its commitment to the sport’s details right out the window.
And without a smart comedic style to push it along, even a series of visual nods to Busby Berkeley (overhead shots of gymnasts in unison) and a snappy sequence of fast-flying leapers on the bars can’t rescue matters.
Playing opposite Bridges’ crusty coach, Peregrym is overshadowed. Her rebel-girl persona never feels like the real deal, though lines like “I’m so sure, I’m practically deodorant” don’t help.
Lengies nails Joanne’s stuck-up bitchiness, but the intrusion of Haley’s Plano biker dude buddies (Kellan Lutz, John Patrick Amedori) hundreds of miles from Houston makes no sense, and threatens to spin the pic into “Napoleon Dynamite” territory.
Lenser Daryn Okada adds considerable visual dazzle, especially with a Spydercam device that turns the gym stunts into a high-speed flight-sequencing pattern. Gymnast and stunt doubles for thesps really take a pounding.