[Screen It]

(2000) (Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku) (PG-13)

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Comedy: With the national championships approaching, the high school captain of a five-time, national champion cheerleading squad scrambles to invent a new routine when she learns that their existing one was stolen from an inner-city squad.
Torrance Shipman (KIRSTEN DUNST) is a high school senior whose life is undergoing some changes. She's sad that her boyfriend, Aaron (RICHARD HILLMAN), has just left for college, but is ecstatic that she'll be taking over the head duties of the Rancho Carne High School cheerleading squad from the outgoing captain, Big Red (LINDSAY SLOANE), who helped lead the Toros to five previous national championships.

Things get off to an inauspicious start when one of the cheerleaders is injured, thus necessitating tryouts for a replacement. While conniving fellow cheerleaders Courtney (CLARE KRAMER) and Whitney Whitney (NICOLE BILDERBACK) have lobbied to have Whitney's younger sister join the squad, Torrance is most impressed with transfer student Missy Pantone (ELIZA DUSHKU), an opinionated young woman looking for an outlet for her gymnastic prowess.

Not all of the others are happy with Missy joining the squad, and that gets worse when she delivers some bad news to them upon seeing their elaborate cheering routine. It seems that Big Red previously stole it from an East Compton squad, the Clovers, who know of the theft. Led by Isis (GABRIELLE UNION), their squad captain, the Clovers arrive at Torrance's San Diego-based school and show up the Toros during a home football game.

Realizing they need a new routine before the regional cheerleading competition, Torrance takes Aaron's advice and hires flamboyant dance choreographer Sparky Polastri (IAN ROBERTS) to dream up a new routine. When that ultimately backfires, it's up to Torrance to keep the squad - that also includes male cheerleaders Jan (NATHAN WEST) and Les (HUNTLEY RITTER) -- together and design a new routine for them before the national championships. And she must do that all while dealing with her conflicting romantic feelings for Aaron and now Missy's brother, Cliff (JESSE BRADFORD), who obviously has eyes for her as well.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Back in my formative scholastic days, high school cheerleaders were definitely one hundred percent of the female persuasion. Whether that was just an anomaly of my high school district isn't clear, but it wasn't until college where I first witnessed guys on the coed cheerleading squad. Being a full-blooded teenage male, however, my attention never focused on those types who weren't in skirts.

That is, at least until my roommate nearly tried out for the squad under the influence of his girlfriend of the time. While his participation probably would not have had much impact one way or the other on his life today, most of us at the time - at least the guys - vehemently tried to talk him out of doing so, simply because being a male cheerleader wasn't considered a cool thing at the time, not that there was anything wrong with it (to paraphrase the characters from "Seinfeld").

I don't know whether such attitudes and preconceived notions have changed much over the intervening years, but such subject matter could make for an interesting film, or at least a parody of one about guys participating in and/or trying out for a spot on the pep squad.

While Universal Pictures' latest comedy, "Bring It On," briefly touches on such matters, asking for a meaningful or in-depth exploration of that issue is clearly a bit much for this film that's about as substantial as a pompom. An occasionally amusing and clearly energetic but plot challenged film about high school cheerleading, this picture is all about sass and teen sensuality and not much else, with the male cheerleader angle only being a small comedic cog in the overall picture.

Although it's not as good or as insightful (and I use that term loosely) as "Clueless," this film has more in common with that verbally dexterous Alicia Silverstone vehicle than the campy 1993 TV movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" or the satire of the teen beauty pageant world in "Drop Dead Gorgeous."

Instead of delivering a scathing or full-bore satirical blow at teens and their parents' involvement in high school cheerleading, the film seems more intent on extracting as much energy as possible from its sassy characters who excel at delivering various put downs and other forms of what's presumably the latest "teen speak."

While a few satirical moments are present - a mother berates a contest judge for momentarily looking down during a routine and the girls attend a high school with a name that, when translated, roughly means "meat ranch" - the film takes even more of a softball approach than those silly, but often obnoxious cheerleading skits on "Saturday Night Live."

It probably would have benefited and been more entertaining had it been more on the attack, but those who are truly into cheerleading will probably get a kick out of the picture's enthusiastic look at the activity. Featuring some extremely energetic and elaborately choreographed cheering routines that are basically entertaining to watch, the film clearly benefits from such moments.

That said, as far as fueling and then driving the picture, they leave a bit to be desired as they don't rank up there with other "competitive sports" film elements. Despite the picture inevitably heading toward the predictable, big finale showdown, such moments surprisingly don't build or maintain much suspense or drama.

In fact, the plot is the film's weakest overall element. As written by newcomer Jessica Bendinger, it's incredibly simplistic and straightforward in nature, coming off as not much more than an elongated TV sitcom story. One can easily see the same basic plot taking place on the old "The Brady Bunch" show with Marcia realizing that her high school squad's cheers have been stolen from a rival school and then diligently working to set matters straight in an ultimately politically correct manner.

Bendinger and director Peyton Reed (who makes his feature film debut after helming some TV remakes of previous Disney films) also populate the film with recycled cinematic clichés and characters, all of which further exacerbate the film's feel of lacking originality. While some such moments are given fresh spins/coats of paint and thus come off as somewhat entertaining, many of them simply feel rehashed.

For example, Gabrielle Union ("Ten Things I Hate About You," TV's "Moesha") and her fellow African-American cast members play stereotypically tough, proud and sassy inner city kids, while Clare Kramer (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and Nicole Bilderback ("Clueless") play the similarly stereotypical attractive but "bitchy" snobs. Then there's the stereotypical gay character and the younger brother who's present simply to be as obnoxious as possible to his older sister.

As far as the lead performances are concerned, Kirsten Dunst ("The Virgin Suicides," "Drop Dead Gorgeous") certainly exudes the look and bubbly energy of a cheerleader, but this sort of character should now be considered below her abilities. While she's fun to watch in the role, she can't do a great deal with it.

Fairing better are Eliza Dushku ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the daughter in "True Lies") and Jesse Bradford ("A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," "King of the Hill") as the recently transplanted siblings. While the early "outsider" characteristics displayed by Dushku's character are seemingly forgotten, she still gets a lot of mileage out of the character, while Bradford is likely to elicit plenty of "he's so cute" comments from the film's target audience.

He did just that for the giggling and talkative girls sitting next to me at our screening, and while the film is by no stretch of the imagination an artistic success, it certainly seemed to engage and entertain them to no end. Nonetheless and despite the occasional fun moments, some decent and acrobatic cheerleading routines and an overall high level of energy, this film isn't much more than some unimaginative fluff that's not really worth cheering for. "Bring It On" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed August 22, 2000 / Posted August 25, 2000

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