“You are cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded. What you do is a tiny, pathetic subset of dancing. I will attempt to turn your robotic routines into poetry, written with the human body. Follow me or perish, sweater monkeys.”
Six years before Step Up brought mainstream success to dance movies, there was this – the cheerleading equivalent of the dance movie. All the elements are there: the two rival teams separated by race and class, the fledgling romance, the competitive spirit (demonstrated through a series of “cheer-offs” rather than dance-offs) and – of course – the epic showdown at the end. Bring It On celebrates the culture and skill of cheerleading, proving it’s not just about bitchy girls in short skirts and gay men (although, naturally, they feature), but that it’s a sport, and one that is not easy to master.
Kirsten Dunst stars as Torrance, newly appointed head cheerleader at the Rancho Carne High School, whose world begins to crumble when she discovered bitchtacular former head Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) had been routinely (ha!) stealing ideas from a less fortunate inner city school who also have a new leader. Confronted with this horrible revelation, as well as a disgruntled team, a moronic college boyfriend, and an unhappy new team mate in the form of former gymnast and cheerleading-cynic Missy (Eliza Dushku), Torrance is faced with the seemingly impossible task of keeping her team together and securing the cheerleading championship trophy once again.
It is, of course, a familiar story. For non-American audiences, however, the world of cheerleading is rather alien and, in all probability the primary source of information on the sport is from the movies. Here, the inclusion of big name stars such as Dunst (this was released at a time when the young actress appeared in practically everything) doesn’t actually compromise the routines as much as, say, early dance movies like Save the Last Dance where it’s blatantly obvious a stand-in is doing all the impressive steps. After all, cheerleading is a group activity, and there are plenty of entertaining small scenes, building up to an excellent final showdown, fully showcasing the talents and athletic abilities of the teens.
The plot is basic and rather generic, but it delivers exactly what it promises and has some engaging and, ultimately, very likeable characters to follow. Dunst’s Torrance is at times manic and overacted, but cheerleading is her life and she reacts accordingly, and it’s hard not to warm to her enthusiasm and sincerity. Dushku’s Missy acts as the perfect foil to Torrance – although she gets caught up in Torrance’s world, her initial disdain for the “sport” allows her to keep more of a distance from the drama. The story is also helped by the snappy language and quick-fire, scathing, silly humour that permeates the film, which actually does twist some of the more conventional aspects of a high school movie to suit its own needs. In particular, the school’s football team turn out to be utterly incompetent, making their insults and jibes towards the cheerleading squad tasked with trying to get the crowd excited at the latest overwhelming defeat seem even more pathetic – they may be jocks, the film suggests, but they’re still idiots.
The actual rivalry between the East Compton Clovers and the Toros is the film’s real weak point – its class/race divide, so prevalent in early dance movies, is clichéd and more than a little cringeworthy. It’s an encounter between Torrance and the Clover’s captain Isis (Gabrielle Union) that results in the now-parodied “You’d better bring it”/ “Oh, I’ll bring it” exchange – accompanied by stern faces and snarky raised eyebrows, of course. Yet the generic elements, while largely unoriginal, do work, and are presented with confidence. This is a film that understands its role and is happy to fulfil it. It also has a trump card up its sleeve – no, not the boyish, puppy charm of love interest Cliff (Jesse Bradford), but the bitchy, dismissive “artistry” of the ridiculously named Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts). Sparky, filled with disdain for the cheerleaders he’s tasked with helping, responsible for the quote that opens this review, and the sole champion of the lost art of the “spirit fingers”, is a wonderfully scathing, hammed up and utterly indulgent character, whose brief cameo easily steals the show.
Since its cinematic release in 2000, Bring It On has spawned an impressive four sequels, all straight-to-DVD – none of the original cast returned for even the second instalment, arriving rather late (2006) and featuring Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and Solange “younger sister of Beyonce” Knowles. I assume I’m not alone when I say that I’ve not bothered to watch any of the later movies, but the original remains a bona fide guilty pleasure, and one of the most entertaining, albeit silly, high school/ dance movies of the 2000s.