Tumble and Flop

Disney's routine can't stick its landing

Criticizing an action movie for being empty-headed is like calling out Brokeback Mountain for its lack of car chases. Likewise, when a teen gymnastics movie is derided as formulaic and dumb, one might logically wonder compared to what?

Very well: Stick It sucks it compared to the modestly charming Kirsten Dunst cheerleading movie Bring It On. It's a fair comparison: Stick It was written and directed by Jessica Bendinger, who also penned Bring It On, and both films explore the world of teenage-girl athletics. Too bad this one shares all of its predecessor's flaws while lacking most of its appeal. Some of the gymnastics footage is fun, and those with a deep interest in the politics of the pommel horse may be enthralled. But for the rest of us, Stick Itoffers up nothing that five minutes of ESPN highlights couldn't give you.

Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) of Plano, Texas, is a rebel -- a point made clear by the retro Black Flag, Motörhead, and Ramones tee shirts she wears (and by the punk rock on the soundtrack, handled by Blink-182 and Green Day). In Stick It's opening scene, she jumps her dirt bike through a plate-glass window for absolutely no reason; when she's brought up on vandalism charges, the judge sentences her to . . . wait for it . . . gymnastics school. Turns out that Haley used to be a world-class gymnast who walked out in the middle of a major competition a few years back. Lucky for her, too: The time away from the mat has apparently allowed her to have a lithe actress' body, as opposed to the squat figures of the minor characters played by real-life gymnasts.

The creepiness continues as the action moves to the gymnastics school, where we meet Jeff Bridges as Coach Vickerman. Bridges is a fine actor, but it takes more than his chops to portray a straight middle-aged man who 1) has dedicated his life to watching contorting teenagers in tights, 2) overhypes their abilities to pry more money from their parents, 3) still comes off looking like Mr. Miyagi. We also meet the other girls of the school, each of whom displays exactly one character trait. In fact, for a film allegedly about girl power, it's strange that almost every laugh line is the indirect result of one of the girls behaving unfathomably stupid.

And finally there are the gymnastics montages, which go a long way toward proving Stick It's contention that girls' gymnastics is as physically impressive as any sport in history. One scene in which different girls performing the same trick are superimposed on each other is particularly nice. But rather than coming away impressed by the girls' skills, you may just be horrified by what it takes to get that good. Making teens train eight hours a day and risk permanent injury for the prize of experiencing their lives' peak moment at age 16 is clearly insane, and to its credit, Stick It does hint that the whole enterprise is deeply flawed. Eventually, we learn that the real villain is the arcane and somewhat arbitrary nature of gymnastics judging. This, unfortunately, isn't explained until the final 15 minutes. Since Haley gets pardoned by the judge about halfway through (meaning, essentially, that she's attending the school "just because") and since the unfair judging is introduced so late, there's a huge chunk of the film during which nothing is at stake. (And if your movie hinges on an element that's arcane and arbitrary, it's a good idea to mention that fact before arriving at your climax.)

All this muddling might work -- as it did in Bring it On -- if Peregrym had the charisma of Dunst or Eliza Dushku, who played that film's rebel. But nope. Peregrym's version is nothing more than a snot, and by the time we learn the dark secret that's supposed to excuse her behavior, we don't care. Vanessa Lengies comes off more appealing, despite being cast as a moron and a bitch.

The message? Gymnastics is hard. Girls, be yourselves. And stick together in the face of outmoded, legalistic sports judging. If you have other questions, go seek the answers in Bring It On.

 
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