Bring It On

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford
Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst, "The Virgin Suicides") thinks her dreams have been answered when she's chosen as captain of her high school's award winning cheerleading squad in her senior year. But newcomer Missy (Eliza Dushku, "True Lies") clues Tori in - the Toros' routines were all stolen from LA's Clovers, an urban squad who intend to challenge Tori's in "Bring It On."

The Toro cheerleading squad from Rancho Carne High School is at the top of the game. The six-time national champions have a new captain, Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst), and it looks like they are on their way to a seventh. Until, that is, Torrance learns that the Toro's kick-ass routine is stolen from another cheerleading squad, the Clovers, leading to a moral dilemma for the new team leader in "Bring It On."

The world of cheerleading at the national competitive level has never, as far as I know, been the subject of a feature film. The picture that comes to my mind when I hear the word "cheerleader" harkens back to my days in high school (many moons ago) when the 'leaders were pretty, stuck up chicks who had their exclusive clique and ignored everyone who didn't belong. (OK, so I was a shy kid who didn't too well with girls back then.) Tyro helmer Peyton Reed and first-time screenwriter Jessica Bendinger shatter that image with a neatly done moral teenage tale about competition, honor and integrity. Winning isn't everything in "Bring It On," but honesty and fair play are.

The story, extensively researched by Bendinger, has a notable lack of parental involvement in the cheerleading lives of the principles. This is actually a strength breathe of fresh air for the film, with Torrance and rival team captain Isis (Gabrielle Union) acting out of dedication and love for their sport, not out of some pressure by mom or dad. I call cheerlead competition a sport because, at the regional and national level, you are looking at kids who have trained as hard as any other athlete and are the best in combining gymnastic skill and dance choreography. I knew nothing about the whole cheerleading thing going in to "Bring It On." Afterward, I did a little research and talked with parents of cheerleaders. I was assured that the movie, as I described it, has the ring of authenticity.

The moral nature of the script builds very strong characters in Torrance, Isis, and the others. Kirsten Dunst does a fine job as the newly elected captain who learns from transfer student Missy (Eliza Dushku) that Torrance's champion cheerleading squad has been gaining kudos by using stolen material. It turns out that the Toro's former captain Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) had surreptitiously videotaped a rival team, the Clovers from Compton High, and homogenized the hip hop routine for the more white bread Rancho Carne High School squad. Not believing that her team's success is based on theft, Torrance agrees to go see the Clovers with Missy.

Torrance is stunned by the blatant rip-off of the other team's excellent performance. The Clovers are every bit as good as the Toros, but their economic circumstances in their blue-collar neighborhood has kept them from competing at the regional and national level. When Isis confronts Torrance and accuses her of being another spy for the Toros, the right-minded Torrance insists that her team completely redo their routine with only six weeks to the nationals, causing a rift in team spirit. Meanwhile, she coaxes her father (the only time parents show up to any degree and they just to fork out money) to collect the funds needed to bring the Clovers to the nationals, too. (In an inexplicable move, Isis tears up the from-the-heart check and the Clovers get to the big show by other means. I thought that the heartfelt and meaningful gesture by Torrance was unnecessarily snubbed.)

The Toros go through the painful exploration of reinventing their performance, going to the expensive pains of hiring a choreographer, Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts), who turns out to be a con artist selling the same cheer routine up and down the California coast. Of course, just when she is at the end of her rope, Torrance is inspired by Missy's brother Cliff (Jesse Bradford), the romantic interest the pretty team captain keeps denying exists, and a new cheer routine is born. Once all these ends are tied together, the big finale at the nationals kicks into gear. I won't discuss the outcome, but it is one heck of a bang for the little movie.

The kids surrounding the principal characters get a chance to flesh out their own characters, if only a little bit. Eliza Dushku ("True Lies") plays the part of Torrance's conscience as she points out the fraud of their routine. She sticks by Torrance when she knows her new friend will do what is right. Jesse Bradford ("King of the Hill") is good looking and has the presence to provide the almost unnecessary, but obligatory, romantic interest. Members of the music group Blaque - Natina Reed, Shamari Fears and Brandi Wiiliams - are very cool and talented as the key members of the Clovers, giving attitude to the Toros and rightfully so. Clare Kramer and Nicole Bilderback, as Courtney and Whitney, are the dim-bulb stereotype Rancho Carne High squad members, but their pride in being dumb but pretty and popular has a certain charm.

There are a number of teams and routines shown during the competition sequences and they are uniformly exciting with energy and fine choreography. The filmmakers and the kids on the screen make what is very hard look easy and graceful. Cheers to dance master Nancy Rae Stone and cheerleading choreographer Ray Jasper for their fine contribution to a good teen flick.

As you'd expect, it all comes down to the best team winning, but "Bring It On" stresses that it is the healthy competition and desire to do one's best for self and team that count. And don't go thinking that the sport of cheerleading is all girls. The press material states that "97% of all cheerleaders are female, however, 50% of all collegiate cheerleaders are male." When a youngster gets to that level - the best of the high schoolers are shown here - the athletic abilities and physical strength of a guy is an absolute necessity in pulling of the remarkable tosses and flips they do. This is a good date flick for older teens and a good roll model movie for younger girls.

"Bring It On" doesn't preach political correctness, just a good moral tale of right versus wrong and why doing the right thing is necessary. If kids are raised believing these simple, but important, concepts then the world will indeed be a better place. It's nice to see a well-crafted, thoughtful film that shows what kids are like at their best. I give it a B.

"Bring It On" is a strange hybrid of a film - it features the usual, routine competition-set-against-romance teen story, yet maintains a certain freshness due to the high-spirited cheerleading choreography, the novelty of presenting cheerleading as a coed competition sport and the appeal of its cast. Simply put, this is more entertaining than a script (by former Spin magazine and MTV News writer Jessica Bendinger) read might indicate.

Tori would seem to have it all when 'Big Red' (Lindsay Sloane) passes down the captain's mantle. Immediately, problems begin to mount. First, a cheerleader suffers a multiple leg break during Tori's first practice. Efforts to find a replacement result in the standard tryout montage, with goth chick Missy, who's only slumming looking for a gymnastics substitute, being the obvious standout. Tori faces opposition from catty cheer girls Courtney (Clare Kramer) and Whitney (Nicole Bilderback), but convincing Missy to join the team opens a new world to Tori. Not only does she discover Big Red's underhanded methods of stealing routines, but she gets to know Missy's brother Cliff (Jesse Bradford, "The King of the Hill"). Supportive, offbeat Cliff will come in awful handy when Tori's off-to-college cheerleading boyfriend proves disloyal in more ways than one.

While the script does go through the expected paces, it also features some offbeat humor (a dream sequence cheer routine delivers a delightfully nasty message, a flirtatious toothbrushing scene). The relationship between Tori and Isis (Gabrielle Union, "Ten Things I Hate About You"), the rival Clovers captain, is also more nuanced than one would expect from a teen comedy. We still have to put up with the obvious romantic manipulations, inconsistently used teenspeak ('She puts the itch in B****') and the de rigueur vomit gag, but the actors pull the weak bits up a notch, while making hay with the more original scenes.

Kirsten Dunst grounds the film with her fresh faced optimism and 'spirit,' and she gets commendable support from Dushku, the talent with 'tude who's surprised at her own enthusiasm for cheerleading. Bradford has the appeal of Paul Rudd in "Clueless" crossed with a young Ben Chaplin ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs") and gives a cheekily offbeat performance. Kramer and Bilderback are fun representing the witchiness/popularity of the sport with Kramer's Courtney being the squad slut (she doesn't wear panties beneath her spankies the better to enjoy her stunts with male colleagues) and Bilderback finagling to get her talentless sister on board. Gabrielle Union is almost patrician as the urban underdog captain, bringing elegance and dignity to Isis. Her squad includes the members of singing group Blaque, of whom Brandi Williams stands out most as the rambunctious LaFred. Ian Roberts plays hired choreographer Sparky Polastri like as a tyrannical Bob Fosse wannabe. Cody McMains is realistically obnoxious as Tori's little brother Justin, believably pulling off the film's requisite fart gag.

Feature debut director Peyton Reed has done an impressive job here, instilling an inspiring energy level in his film. The mixture of professional cheerleaders and actors is seamless (there were 12 coed cheerleaders to 8 actors per squad) and the climatic competition is rousing. For anyone who's never watched a real national cheerleading competition on cable, "Bring It On" will be a relevation.


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