A film that is as funny to teen-agers as it is to fun-loving adults shouldn’t be such a rarity — after all, everyone likes to laugh — but a rarity it is, largely because teen films lately have relied on sappy, predictable romance (“Drive Me Crazy,” “Here on Earth”) and lame-headed humor (“Whatever It Takes,” “Loser,” Freddie Prinze Jr.). So when something like “Bring It On” comes along and proves itself one of the funniest films of the year, both for kids and adults, it is an event to be celebrated.
Directed by Peyton Reed, whose credits include TV’s “Mr. Show,” “Upright Citizens’ Brigade” and “The Weird Al Show,” “Bring It On” uses that subversive, satirical-but-not-farcical style to great advantage in its story about a San Diego high school cheerleading squad’s attempts to win the national championship for the sixth year in a row.
From the film’s first sequence, in which cheerleaders perform a number with lines like, “I’m pretty, I’m cool, I dominate this school,” and another lyric about how “we’re not whores” (I couldn’t write it down fast enough), you know this is NOT going to be just another movie in which the subject matter (in this case cheerleading) becomes the most important thing in the universe, and the audience is supposed to feel inspired by their triumphs. No, this is a movie where cheerleading is lovingly mocked, shown for what it really is. (“It’s only cheerleading,” says one character, consoling a despondent team captain. “But I AM only cheerleading!” comes the honest reply.)
The action is at Rancho Carne (“Meat Ranch”) High School, where departing team captain Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) has turned the reins over to senior Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst). When a team member breaks her leg in a practice, it’s time to call in the replacements. (The over-long sequence of losers doing miserable auditions is one of the film’s very few comic misfirings.) The winner of the audition is Goth-looking Missy Pantone (Eliza Dushku), who’s got all the moves but hates cheerleading. (Her audition cheer: “I transferred from Los Angeles/Your school has no gymnastics team/This is my last resort.”)
Still, Torrance convinces her to join the team, while simultaneously falling for Missy’s brother, Cliff (Jesse Bradford), even though she supposedly has a boyfriend (Richard Hillman) away at college.
Trouble brews when it’s discovered that all the moves Big Red taught the team were stolen from East Compton High School, an inner-city school that will be at the regional competition, too, which means Rancho Carne can’t get away with using their material anymore. The team brings in a choreographer named Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts) — think Corky St. Clair from “Waiting for Guffman” — to teach them some new moves, in what is probably the single funniest scene in the film. Imagine a flamboyant General Patton, and you’ve got this guy, going down the row of cheerleaders and pointing out their faults like a fey drill instructor. (Why does everyone have to diet? “Because in cheerleading, we throw people in the air, and fat people don’t go as high.” Also, as he adroitly points out, “Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded.”)
Sparky proves no help, though, and it’s up to the team to come up with their OWN routine, in time for the national finals in Florida.
Full of snarky (but not terribly mean-spirited) dialogue, the film is a triumph for first-time screenwriter Jessica Bendinger. Evidence of the film’s snappy, smart phraseology? I jotted down more lines from the movie than I did notes on the acting or storyline.
“Don’t play dumb,” says one of the cheerleaders to Torrance. “We’re better at it than you are.”
“This is not a democracy, it’s a cheer-ocracy.” “Well, you’re being a cheer-tator!”
“Do I look like a milkmaid, because someone feels like a cow,” says one of the male cheerleaders while holding a girl aloft.
That said, the acting is miles above most teen-based films. Jesse Bradford, particularly, as Cliff, looks a lot like Freddie Prinze Jr., but with the added bonus of being able to act, deliver a joke, and find humor in a scene. Eliza Dushku and Kirsten Dunst are also eminently likable and understated as the two heroines.
Aside from the obvious assets like good acting and comical situations, the film works for two main reasons: One, it cracks joke after joke, yet rarely feels the need to whack you over the head with them. The funniest parts are the throw-away lines, delivered by actors who seem completely unaware that they’re doing comedy — which, of course, is the best way to be funny, by appearing not to be trying.
Two, it avoids false sentimentality. Perfect example: When Torrance’s unfaithful college boyfriend (who doesn’t believe in her abilities, by the way, though Cliff does) visits and Cliff sees them together, he’s a little crushed. He was waiting at Torrance’s house to give her flowers — a genuinely sweet gesture. He also recorded a tape for her, though. “Uh-oh,” we’re thinking. “This tape’s going to be cheesy and sappy.” (The teen-age girls, meanwhile, are thinking, “Awwww! That cute boy gave her a tape, and it’s going to have an N’Sync song on it, and it’s going to make us cry!”) What the tape contains is a song Cliff wrote himself, a punk-rock tune with lyrics like, “I’d bring you flowers every day/Just to roll you in the hay.” What could have been a gag-inducing cheese moment instead is made very funny — and yet still, in its way, rather sweet, thus achieving both purposes.
While most teen films focus too much on the romance, which is usually forced and based on the fact that the principals are good-looking, this one focuses on the cheerleading, letting the romance be a well-played subplot, deftly interwoven with what’s really going on.
The film also ends in a way that is legitimately surprising, realistic, and satisfying — three things not generally associated with the genre.
In short, “Bring It On” is a smart, devastatingly funny film that doesn’t pander to its audience. A grumpy old film critic declaring he LIKES a “teen movie”? I’m just as surprised as you are. But man, this thing is funny.
A- (; )