Take Two

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Stick It & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & ust in time for pre-summer, Bring It On writer Jessica Bendinger attempts to capitalize on the success of her irreverent look into the world of young female hyper-competition with another film about -- you know -- young, hyper-competitive females. The difference, though, between her hit Bring It On and this new film, Stick It, is that, unfortunately, Stick It sucks. Like, bad. And not brilliant bad, the way Bring It On did. (Remember "Cheerleaders are dancers who've gone retarded"?)

No, Stick It is so bad I struggle even to mock it with gymnastics-related comparisons. I have to, though, since I actually get paid by the contextualizing simile (at very competitive rates!). So, hmm, the story's as uneven as... the parallel bars. The characterizations are flatter than... Mary Lou Retton. Uh, this is getting tough. The jokes have less bounce than than... Bela Karolyi's toupee! Yes, nailed the dismount.

The saddest part of the whole thing is that you can tell that, throughout her writing process, Bendinger struggled harder than I just did to come up with funny things to say about gymnastics because, unfortunately, there's only one funny thing about the sport: It's populated by flat-chested, back-stabbing tweens. That's good for five minutes if you stretch it. Rough that Bendinger had 85 more minutes to fill.

Adding to the woe, Bendinger commits a classic writerly sin of ambition, using the success of Bring It On to weasel her way into the director's chair. Just about as listless as a third-grader's Dance Emporium tumbling routine and infinitely clumsier, Bendinger's direction relies on a handful of stylized shots, some hackneyed CGI and a whole lot of blocky, staid camera angles. It's strange to see so little motion out of a director who cut her teeth on music videos (such as Queen Latifah's 1991 anthem "Fly Girls").

It's more unfortunate than that, though, because believe it or not, Stick It contains the seeds of a really interesting story, seeds that might've bloomed given less caustic soil and a less self-consciously derisive atmosphere. Controversy follows Hailey Graham's coach like a black cloud. Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges) had a career-ending injury cut his Olympic dreams short, and he's dogged by near-constant insinuations that, while other coaches' gymnasts don't go as big as Burt's, they at least leave the floor under their own power. It hints that Vickerman has parlayed his sense of personal failure into a dangerous drive for vicarious success. There are serious ethical quandaries at play when ambitious adults push malleable children to the breaking point, but nothing's made of it here. Not a damn thing.

Struggling uphill against all this slag are two solid performances. Alternately leeching the disappointment of a come-lately failure and exuding the confidence of a past champion, Bridges is almost as good here as he was in The Door in the Floor, without the benefit of source material from John Irving. In addition, as Hailey, Missy Peregrym (bonus points for dopest name in history) displays far more range than she should've been able to manage.

There's hope here, then -- not for this film, but for a topic of import given a more earnest treatment. There's also some hope for two careers -- one that might be spectacularly taking off and another that, as recently as two years ago, we'd all written off.