Love her or hate her, wring your hands over the state of pop culture all you want, say whatever you will, the fact remains, Britney Spears is hot (in all senses of the word). It is hardly surprising, then, that the release of her first feature-length, star vehicle, Crossroads, is being so eagerly anticipated by her millions of adoring fans, if not so much by critics or cynical adults.
One of the most remarkable things about Brit is her wide appeal, attested to at the preview screening I attended. Rest assured, the crowd one might expect to see at a Britney event were there — a lot of pre-to-late teen girls in various states of Britney mimicry, and the same age demographic of boys who would hoot and holler at even the merest hint of our girl’s celebrated midriff or cleavage. But there were also “others” aplenty in the audience. From five to 50 (and these were adults on their own, not escorting their children), boys and girls, black, white, Asian, and Latino, straight and gay, they all were there.
What’s more, unlike the audiences at most movie previews, these folks were amped. There was cheering, giggling, and full-on participation in the pre-show shenanigans, including, naturally, a movie-linked Britney karaoke contest. Ultimately, this contest was won by the one boy who sang. Now, he didn’t sing all that well, and he struggled to keep up with the tune of “Oops . . . I Did It Again” (I could have done a much better job), but the crowd cheered him the loudest, if only for his audacity and willingness to admit openly to being a Britney fan. Damn, girl got it goin’ on.
Britney’s multiple positionings in relation to her many fans are, of course, a large part of her huge success, as well as the occasion for a number of cultural anxieties. Is she a good girl or a slut? Is she an “appropriate” role model for young girls? What about the boob job? She writes books about familial love and friendship with her mother, and claims to be a virgin, saving it for her impending marriage to Justin, yet she appears in jungle queen costume and dances around with a snake at the MTV VMAs, and participates in some warehouse orgy in the video for “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Recently, in The Washington Post, television critic Tom Shales called Brit America’s “newest and favorite sex kitten,” and he’s exactly right. “Kitten” as in cute, fuzzy, playful, and innocent, and “sex” as in, well, sex. It’s the old virgin-whore thing, an explosive combination made all the more so when packaged and sold as Catholic school Lolita.
Crossroads, as directed by Tamra Davis (wife of Beastie Boy Mike D, and director of other gems like Half Baked and Billy Madison), knows all this about Britney and runs with it. So, Brit plays Lucy, the good girl and valedictorian of her small-town Georgia high school. When we first see Lucy, she’s dancing around in her bedroom in the cutest pale pink boy’s y-front jockey shorts and a strappy baby-doll T-shirt, singing along with (who else?) Madonna. She’s interrupted by her father (Dan Aykroyd), who has just finished ironing her graduation gown and gold valedictorian sash. She’s smart, sexy, and demure, rushing to cover herself when her father enters.
This scene pretty much sets the film’s doubled approach to its star. Crossroads takes every opportunity to strip her down: in addition to the alone-in-her-bedroom scene, there’s the shower scene, the beach/bikini scene, and of course, the sexy karaoke night club performance scene. But the film also takes every opportunity to dress her up in high falutin’ morality. Early on, on graduation night, Lucy decides it’s time to let loose and to lose her virginity, and that her friend and chemistry lab partner, Henry (Justin Long of Jeepers Creepers), is just the nice boy for the job. At the last minute, however, she changes her mind, telling Henry this isn’t how she wants it to happen, and that her first time will have to be with someone she really loves.
Lucy’s quest to find true love and to lose her virginity is Britney’s own story, exhibited in her very public and very self-conscious transformation from Mousketeer into pop icon/sex goddess. Predictably, Crossroads moves towards Lucy’s audition for “Slide Records,” singing the song she wrote, which is Britney’s current heavy rotation smash, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” a song that celebrates this transformation. It’s hokey, lovey-dovey, tortured girl angst. And it’s totally infectious. You can’t help but croon along, even while you feel silly and stupid doing so.
It certainly affects Ben (Anson Mount), Lucy’s true love and ride-along owner of the car that she and her two friends — Mimi (Taryn Manning) and Kit (Zoe Saldana) — need for their road trip to LA. Ben’s inclusion might seem a bit of a surprise, as Crossroad‘s advertising proclaims that “Road trips aren’t just for guys,” or some such thing. Apparently, road trips aren’t just for guys, but they can’t be entirely for girls either. There are a number of reasons for this. First, these fragile late-teen girls need someone to protect them, as Ben does when Lucy is beset by a drunken, groping suitor in the karaoke bar, even though Mimi is a tough girl who teaches Kit how to throw a punch.
Additionally, Lucy needs someone to fall in love with, and picking up some guy along the way would be not only “immoral,” but dangerous as well (just think of Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise). Lastly, an all-girl road trip would be just a little too queer; Crossroads needs Ben to defuse its own potential lesbian erotics. So, Lucy has Ben, and the three girls can talk about boys, relationships, and sex till they are blue in the face. This actually gets to be a little much, as Ben attests when bemoaning the fact that his life is being taken over by all things girly.
So Crossroads is girly, corny, and juvenile. Ben asks Lucy what she is always writing in her journal. She replies, “Poems, mostly,” and on request reads him one, which happens to be the lyrics to “I’m Not a Girl.” Also groany are Britney’s efforts to Act. My favorite such moment comes right at the beginning. After graduation is over, the lonely and confused Lucy, with tears in her eyes, laments to her pop that “I tried so hard to be valedictorian. I never stayed out late, never went to any parties . . . There’s a lot of things I wanted to do, and I keep asking myself, ‘Is this it?'” Of course it isn’t sweetheart, just around the corner, you’ll find a road trip that will test the limits of your friendships, and a strapping and sensitive young man with whom you will have sex.
The film’s emotional displays are so ham-handed you just have to laugh, whether in pleasure or derision. Crossroads positions you with Ben, and for all your careful and superior self-distancing, you can’t help but love Lucy/Britney. At the beginning of their road trip, the girls beg Ben to change the radio station for just five minutes, as they are getting a bit tired of his preferred metal/prog rock fare, featuring Matthew Sweet and (ironically?) Limp Bizkit. When he capitulates, they quickly find a pop station and Ben rolls his eyes in disgust as Lucy, Kit, and Mimi sing along to (hee, hee) “Hit Me Baby . . . One More Time.”
But, by the end of the film, despite his early distaste for such fare, Ben is singing along with the girls to Martina McBride’s “If It Makes You Happy.” Ben stands in for all of us skeptics and cultural mandarins who assail Brit and her teeny-bopper cohorts. As he is transformed, singing along with the girls, we are left to wonder at our own reluctance to join in. Sure, Crossroads and Brit herself may be silly, superficial, and bubbly, but so what? She and the film are also fun, sexy, and playful, and if Britney or pop music makes someone, anyone, maybe even you, even for a moment, it can’t be all bad.