I confess to an abiding affection for Kirsten Dunst. Ever since I saw her 9-year-old self so deeply perturb Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire (1994), I have stubbornly held onto the idea that she has something going on beyond the Dawson’s-style earnestness. I like her so much that I don’t mind much that she’s inclined to play the good girl, because her version of that girl looks to me like she’s slightly suspicious and even occasionally troubled by the role, like good isn’t quite what she means to be. And because I like her, I was willing to overlook Small Soldiers (where she was reduced to doing battle with killer-Barbie-dolls possessed by the voices of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci), or the third Crow (which went appropriately straight to video). I felt my faith was validated in 1999, when Dunst came back bigtime, in Dick and The Virgin Suicides, two very different movies in which she gives smart performances.
Still, for all my loyalty, I also confess to a certain trepidation when I saw my girl on Total Request Live last week, hawking her new cheerleader movie, Bring It On. Kirsten smiled and said it was so “great” to play a white girl cheerleader competing with a team of black cheerleaders, some played by the members of Blaque Natina Reed, Shamari Fears, and Brandi Williams which was the most obvious reason for her appearance with Carson Daly that day. Kirsten talked about how “great” the Blaque girls were, and then Carson showed clips of Kirsten in her little red and black uniform, her blond hair bouncy, her legs lithe, and her cheeks perfectly pink. I was afraid.
As it turns out, Bring It On isn’t quite so scary as it looks. Because it is a cheerleader movie, it deploys the requisite moves: the conventionally slow-witted football players harass the boy cheerleaders (though one of the cheerleaders defiantly describes his sexuality as “controversial” and does make his move on a cute boy eventually) and the girl cheerleaders fuss about their lipstick and their place on the popularity scale. Clearly, stakes are high. As new team captain Torrance Shipman (Dunst) explains her fervor to her disbelieving mother (Sherry Hursey), “Mothers have killed” to get their daughters on squads. Well, that’s not quite right. Mrs. Shipman reminds her that the “high school cheerleading mom” didn’t kill anyone, she only “hired a hit man.” It’s this kind of self-awareness that makes Bring It On a bearable cheerleader movie, despite and because of its cliched plot (building up to regional and national competitions) and routine digs at squad members named Whitney (Nicole Bilderback) and Courtney (Clare Kramer), who resemble Quinn Morgendorfer’s best friends on the fast track to careers at the Coyote Ugly. By contrast, Torrance Tor to her intimates is yet another Dunstian good girl, grappling with the usual predicaments (distracted parents, an unfaithful boyfriend, an irksome little brother [Cody McMains]). In addition, she’s faced with a moral dilemma: when she takes over as head of the five-times national champions Rancho Carne Toros, Torrance learns that all of their prize-winning routines over the years have been ripped off from another team. Oh dear.
Unsurprisingly and luckily, since she has to wade her way through this sickly-sweet plot, Tor is resourceful and infinitely well-intentioned. Better, she has a very cool new best friend, tough chick Missy Pantone, played by terrific Eliza Dushku (Faith on the WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer). You know Missy’s different from the other airheaded cheerleaders because she comes to tryouts with her keys jangling on her belt loop and executes a series of kick-ass gymnast’s floor exercise flips: “Missy’s the poo!” exults Torrance, in one of her several Heathers-lite moments. What’s more, Missy’s the surly girl from out of town, the one who knows stuff that the sheltered whitegirls do not: she’s the one who takes Tor on a little trip to East Compton to see the black squad who in fact developed all the Toros’ stolen routines first. Distraught, poor Tor wails, “My entire cheerleading career has been a lie!” (As cynical melodrama goes, this moment has its overkill appeal.)
She also tries immediately to make amends, but the Clovers, headed by Isis (Gabrielle Union), will have none of her simpery, “but-I-didn’t-know” apologies. Indeed, when Tor tries to explain herself, Isis’s compatriots flash their long fingernails and threaten Tor and Missy: “Let’s beat these Buffies down!” Yeah they’re pissed off: the East Compton kids, long denied a spot at the National Finals (televised on ESPN2), are determined to secure their chance at the title this year in Daytona, which means they are distrustful of Tor and determined to flatten the Toros.
Now this is a surprise: Bring It On is, at some not-quite-invisible sublevel, about white thievery of black cultural forms and content. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that it’s written by Jessica Bendinger, who previously spent time working at MTV News and writing about hip-hop for Spin, a gig which must have had its frustrations, given how little space the magazine (like most popular music publications not expressly devoted to hiphop) generally allows the subject. While Bring It On doesn’t exactly make a dramatic case for reparations, it does address the topic in a relatively complex and respectful way. Bendinger’s script (her first) is often funny, trenchant, and politically savvy. Perhaps its most compelling scene relatively speaking, of course comes when Tor decides that to “do the right thing,” she must get her rich dad’s company to sponsor the East Compton team’s trip to the finals in Florida. When she shows up at the Clovers’ gym with check in hand, all proud and perky, Isis is cold. She rejects what she calls Tor’s “guilt money,” ripping the check in half. Here’s an unexpectedly un-saccharine lesson: Tor’s good intentions are not enough to make things right. “Why do you have to be so mean?” she whines. “I’m being strong,” asserts Isis, looking fierce. “For my squad.”
Well, okay. The movie does occasionally trip over its own symbolism. And it doesn’t exactly challenge those generic banalities you just know will come up, like the try-out montage or the practice montage, or those plot turns when the snooty girls get their mandatory comeuppance or the football players realize that cheerleading can be a worthy pursuit for boys. Still, there are moments when Bring It On‘s targeting works, albeit in a derivative way. For instance, when Tor calls in a choreographer to help the squad devise replacement material, he looks like he’s just stepped out of Waiting For Guffman. Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts) stomps his boots and claps his hands, then looks down his nose at his clients’ awkward gyrating and posing, and announces, “Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded!” (That his moves like the “Spirit Fingers” are beyond corny is the first punchline, that the team doesn’t realize this is the other.) In addition, the film hangs on to its teen-romantic-comedy foundations: Tor finds the customary true love with Missy’s older brother Cliff (Jesse Bradford), who, much like the Paul Rudd character in Clueless, is supportive in a suitably skeptical way, being a somewhat schizzy Clash-Cramps-Matchbox Twenty fan.
Such excessive cuteness just gets in the way of what the movie does decently, which is to examine, however briefly, the class-race-gender-sex anxieties that comprise high school, as an experience as well as a movie genre. Like most teen-targeted “product” these days, Bring It On is stuck between hard places. It knows its primary audience has been through high school not to mention an ongoing surfeit of high school movies and tv shows but also knows it has a slew of stereotypes to which it must conform to make studio muster. And so, in the end, it is a cheerleader movie, laced through with little bits of sass. As she must, good girl Tor learns to wield her perkiness as a force for, what else, Goodness. When her foofy squadmates try to overrule her decision to create all new routines for Daytona, she puts her foot down: “This is not a democracy. It’s a cheerocracy!” Yay team, etc.