by Josie Kafka
There are plenty of TV shows and movies that we’re embarrassed to like because of their title or their premise. If you’ve ever tried to explain to someone that, no, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not as silly as its name implies, you were likely mocked and perhaps even pitied. So I hope you’ll bear with me when I tell you that Bring It On, while no Buffy, is a fabulous and enjoyable movie that transcends its high-school cheerleading premise.
Everything I know about high school cheerleading boils down to two things: I sat next to a cheerleader named Caroline during junior-year Spanish class (How does one say “cheerleader” in Spanish? No sé.) and I’ve read Megan Abbott’s brutal and enthralling novel The Fever. Yet, despite my apathy for the sport it's focused on, I’ve watched Bring It On more than a few times, and I always enjoy it.
The plot is simple: Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), the new captain of the upper-class Rancho Carne High School cheer team, discovers that the previous captain had stolen their team’s award-winning cheers from the low-income East Compton High (a team lead by Gabrielle Union). Torrance, along with her new BFF Missy (Eliza Dushku), struggles to remedy the situation and learns valuable lessons along the way.
That story, as I just described it, would make an excellent bad after-school special about cheerleading. But Bring It On isn’t a cheerleading movie, although it does feature plenty of C&C Music Factory and a lot of tiny female bodies flipping around in the air. Rather, it’s a coming-of-age story that happens to involve cheerleaders. Some of the young women have male love interests, but they’re more focused on their relationships with each other. It’s a movie about never dropping the spirit stick—at least not metaphorically—and doing the right thing. It’s also funny.
At the risk of seriously overthinking it, I’m tempted to say that I persist in liking this movie for two reasons: it values teamwork and intelligence. At first, it looks like it might descend into a white vs. black, rich vs. poor, OC vs. Compton “rumble,” as Missy sarcastically calls it. But the few girls who want to play dirty are shot down (and eventually change their minds). Torrance and Isis are both focused on winning with honor. The scene where they provide last-minute critiques to each other’s teams is all about the nobility of being the best by beating the best (to paraphrase Torrance herself).
And it’s smart. Some of the dialogue is darn witty, and I love that one of the cheerleaders takes such pride in using “SAT words.” These may be girls who shout, to a beat, “I swear I’m not a whore!” during Torrance’s dream sequence, but they’re also young women who, for the most part, are going to go on to college and succeed in life. Just because they’re beautiful, sexy cheerleaders doesn’t mean they’re stupid.
While a great deal of the credit for the film’s intelligence goes to screenwriter Jessica Bendiger, the stars get credit for communicating the intelligence of their characters. Gabrielle Union’s Isis makes her character’s moral fiber apparent within two or three lines. As Missy, Eliza Dushku plays, as she tends to do, a watered-down version of Faith the Vampire Slayer—a squishy soft center wrapped in a thick coating of bravado. Kirsten Dunst brings a delicate irony to the cheer captain’s over the top exuberance; that girl always seems to be having her sardonic cake and eating it with gusto, too.
None of the actors seem to be taking themselves too seriously, and none of the characters do, either. The stakes are real—we really root for both the Rancho Carne Toros and the East Compton Clovers—but the film never reaches the point of melodrama or bathos, which makes the pitch-perfect ending even more delightful.
Bring It On came out in 2000, and I wonder if we can see the influence of Joss Whedon’s portrayal of teenage life in Southern California here. Put another way: if you liked Buffy, you will probably like this movie, too.
Speaking of Buffy
• Lots of Buffy actors in this film: Eliza Dushku (obviously). But that’s not all: Claire Kramer, who played Glory in Season Five, is on the Rancho Carne cheer squad, which also includes a cheerleader named Whitney that I knew I recognized…and she’s credited with being one of Cordelia’s entourage (a Cordette) in the early seasons of Buffy.
• The Buffy fun doesn’t end there: Bring It On was filmed, in part, at Torrance High School, which also doubled as Sunnydale High in the first three seasons.
• And one of the East Compton cheerleaders even calls Torrance (the character, not the city) and Missy “Buffys” when they visit the East Compton High School.
Four out of four pom-poms.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)