Stick It

Screenwriter Jessica Bendinger struck gold with “Bring It On,” a savvy 2000 film that subverted the teen-movie genre by being, of all things, genuinely smart and witty. She got distracted after that with tweener piffle like “First Daughter” and “Aquamarine,” so it’s good to see her back in snark mode with “Stick It,” a smart-mouthed little movie that does for gymnastics what “Bring It On” did for cheerleading.

In fact, “Stick It” could be the story of the Eliza Dushku character in “Bring It On,” the rebellious girl who joined the cheerleading squad only because the school had no gymnastics team. Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) is certainly from the same mold. The 16-ish Texas girl made it to the world finals a few years ago, only to walk away before the last competition and leave gymnastics forever, earning the scorn of her fellow gymnasts (particularly the teammates she let down). Now she terrorizes Plano on her skateboard and avoids organized athletics of any kind.

When Haley is charged with vandalism after a skating stunt goes awry, a plea bargain is struck: To stay out of juvenile hall, she’s sent to the Vickerman Gymnastics Academy in Houston, where she’s expected to resume training and make the most of her natural abilities.

The owner of the VGA is Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), and he’s in need of some redemption, too. His own gymnastics career was cut short, and as a coach, he’s famous mostly for turning out gymnasts who get hurt during competitions. To keep the money coming in, he tells every hopeful mother that her little girl is bound for the Olympics, if only she’ll keep training at the VGA.

He has a squad of nine teenage girls who actually are promising, however, some of whom have been nationally ranked already. They know Haley, either personally or by reputation, and greet her with open disdain. (“Pariah Carey” is what one of them calls her; Burt dubs her “Rebel without applause.”) But don’t worry about Haley: The girl can sling the sass as well as anyone.

Burt tells Haley that the IG Classic is coming up, and if she can win it, she’ll have enough money to make restitution on the vandalism and get her life back. We assume the movie’s heading for a standard competition finale, but then the IG Classic comes and goes and we realize the movie has decided, as long as it’s already on the road, to make a few other stops, too.

We end up with a scathing indictment of the gymnastics scoring system, where judges with grudges can make competitors’ lives miserable, and where minor, archaic infractions can ruin a score. Haley and her competition teammates — softened rival Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), perky, semi-clueless Wei Wei (Nikki SooHoo) and harmless Mina (Maddy Curley) — undertake a rebellion against the unfair scoring practices that has a vigorous “fight the power/bring down The Man” feel to it. Who knew there was such rancor here? Not me. The agenda seems odd for a movie like this, but it proves to be compelling. If nothing else, at least it’s something different.

Bendinger, who makes her directorial debut with this film, also spends some time reinforcing the philosophy that while gymnastics can be important, it shouldn’t be a girl’s whole life. That point is very sweetly and amusingly made in a sequence where Haley’s platonic guy friends Poot (John Patrick Amedori) and Frank (Kellan Lutz), both too young and mid-adolescent to be threatening, come to visit and woo some of Haley’s teammates, who are only too glad to have something other than pommel horses and floor routines to think about.

The characters inhabit a world where everyone speaks in that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”/”Gilmore Girls” patois, full of puns, pop-culture references and smart-aleck slang. No one talks like that in real life, and certainly not all the members of any group, but it is fun to listen to, and eminently quotable.

Jeff Bridges hasn’t been this entertaining in a movie since “The Big Lebowski,” and his performance here, along with 2004’s “The Door in the Floor,” suggests he’s settling into a mellow, devil-may-care phase as he approaches 60 (!). His every line in “Stick It” is delivered with enough bite to make it count but enough heart to make it believable, even when the line itself is jammed with an absurd amount of screenwriter’s excess.

Missy Peregrym, who looks like a young, non-equine Hilary Swank, has been in films before, but “Stick It” could be her breakout. I don’t know how much of the gymnastics footage is her and how much is a stand-in, but she’s clearly a very capable physical actress, not to mention a quick-witted and self-effacing comedic one. She’s not afraid to fall down, look silly, or make a dumb face — and it’s always in the interest of the story, not of drawing attention to herself.

The film has a decidedly more serious undertone to it than “Bring It On” did, fluffy and comical all the way through but with real characters and real feelings underneath. Bendinger handles it all impressively, especially for her first time in the director’s chair, shooting the red and white VGA gym with overhead cameras and using time-lapse editing and other nifty maneuvers to give even the everyday training montages some new vitality.

The film is almost too energetic for its own good, considering how many subplots and motifs it has to deal with. It has a marathon’s worth of material yet tries, impossibly, to maintain a sprinter’s pace. That being said, I’d rather see a movie that’s TOO amped-up than one that’s lazy. And this one’s anything but lazy.

B (1 hr., 45 min.; PG-13, some profanity, some vulgarity.)