"It's just cheerleading," new-kid-in-class Cliff (Jesse Bradford) tells Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), the stressed-out head of her San Diego high school's pom-pom squad, early during "Bring It On." Later, a pompous, hired-hand choreographer (Ian Roberts) offers this cutting remark about the girls (and sometimes boys) who provide the window dressing for athletic events: "Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded."
It's difficult not to sympathize with those sentiments, particularly if you're one of those folks who remember cheerleaders as attractive-but-irrelevant distractions from the Friday nights of their youth. Frankly, the happy-happy routine -- and all that sis-boom-bah -- always seemed to wear out their welcome long before the first quarter was over. And how could a functioning individual maintain that much school spirit, anyway?
But as "Bring It On" demonstrates, contemporary cheerleading is a far cry from the days of posing, prancing and romancing the football team. Cheer squads (often coed now) employ routines characterized by athleticism, agility and the ability to perform synchronized moves borrowed from Broadway, the nightclub floor and sundry other sources. The best teams compete in an annual competition that receives national television coverage. It's far more stylish, and probably sexier, than ever before.
The uneven debut feature from TV director Peyton Reed (Comedy Central's "Upright Citizens Brigade") handily captures the fresh-scrubbed enthusiasm and high energy at the core of its lead characters' peppy obsession. Those qualities are particularly evident during the last 20 minutes or so of this dying-to-be-liked movie, as Torrance and her middle-class Toros face off against the tougher, funkier Clovers, a mostly African-American team from East Compton. (The two battle for top honors during a national competition in Daytona Beach.)
The fast-paced choreography, which sets bodies flying high in the air and twisting to insistent beats, will thrill fans of cheerleading and perhaps prove a pleasant diversion to the unconverted. This movie might even become a recruiting vehicle.
"Bring It On" is otherwise as skimpy as some of the clothes worn by Dunst (The Virgin Suicides, "Dick") and the other young cast members during a couple of scenes -- the locker-room sequence, the car-wash bit -- that are sure to be appreciated by the boyfriends of the teen-aged girls who are ostensibly the film's the target audience. The welding of teen dreams to salaciousness puts the film in lockstep with the recent Center Stage, though its starry-eyed strivings are cut from the same cloth as all the youthful let's-put-on-a-show fantasies ever cranked out by Hollywood.
Torrance, the newly elected captain of her team, is pressured to lead the group to its sixth consecutive national championship. Alas, the obstacles loom large. A perpetually overenthusiastic Toro takes a fall during practice, putting her out of commission. The logical choice to fill the vacancy is Missy (Eliza Dushku), a rebellious, top-caliber gymnast who just happens to be the sister of Torrance's budding crush, Cliff (who's considered "alternative" because he favors Clash t-shirts, Ramones records and loud guitar playing). With Cliff's help, Torrance convinces Missy to put her natural reticence aside and sign on board. But the new recruit is openly disliked by Torrance's catty subordinates Courtney (Claire Kramer) and Whitney (Nicole Bilderback). As the tension between the girls ebbs and flows, words like "cheerocracy" and "cheertator" are tossed around. It's tough to argue with the camp value of dialogue that incorporates such terms.
To make matters worse, the Toros' polished routine is exposed as a rip-off of moves created by the Clovers. In the script's most soft-headed plot turn, the sympathetic Missy gets her dad's company to fund the inner-city girls' trip to Florida. (Unlike most of her compatriots, Torrance is dedicated to fair play.) But brash Clover captain Isis (Gabrielle Union) and her squad reject the offer of charity, instead calling on a generous, Oprah-like TV personality for financial aid.
Everything comes to a boil in a last act whose aforementioned verve doesn't mask its utter predictability. The final score: "Bring It On" emerges as the best cheerleading movie of the summer, but only due to the abject failure of the largely dissimilar But I'm a Cheerleader. Ladies and gentlemen, the winner by default. Rah, rah.