According to the personal canon I made during my quasi-productive, mostly dreary week of “spring” break, “Bring It On” ranks as the 36th greatest film I have ever seen, wedged squarely between the more acceptable heavyweights “Unforgiven” (a melancholy Western masterpiece) and “Gilda” (Rita Hayworth, mee-yow!). And yes, I am referring to the cheerleading movie.
“Bring It On” has become a regular fixture on cable television, often blared noisily on the likes of TBS or ABC Family on a lazy Saturday night. So it’s not, strictly speaking, a “neglected jewel” of yesteryear. Yet, while so much has already been said about the film — Ian Roberts’s marvelous, manic spirit fingers, Eliza Dushku’s smokin’ ass, bubbly Kirsten Dunst back when she was still relevant — so little about it is given credit.
The modern teen comedy, which debatably originated in early John Hughes filmography, is its own beast. There are the tropes we’ve come to expect — the inappropriately timed gay jokes, the obligatory pan across a notebook-sketched map of cafeteria cliques, the cheating loser boyfriend — and the movies that adhere faithfully to them. Unremarkable on their own, these films have managed to craft their own discourse over the years. But then there’s the trifecta, the films called favorites by even those for whom pubescence is a faraway memory. These movies bring something special to the table, whether brutally displaying the teenage condition (“The Breakfast Club”), cheekily evoking Victorian literature (“Clueless”) or satirizing teen cliques and queen bees (“Mean Girls”).
What separates “Bring It On” from the likes of these classics is that it’s actually really stupid. It’s about a group of cheerleaders that rips off a neighboring school’s routine and then get second place at a national competition. It’s about a goofy, hyper-kinetic girl who breaks up with her lame boyfriend and instantly lands herself a cute one who plays air guitar in his bedroom. In short: stupid.
But it works, maybe because its expectations fall nothing short of conveying the honest, true-to-life adolescent experience. In place of self-aware satire, “Bring It On” goes for the belly laughs — football players fumbling over the pigskin, a montage of “American Idol”-style cheer tryouts. Teenagers aren’t portrayed as modern prophets or Holden Caulfield-esque saviors — they’re genuinely confused, sometimes cruel, human beings. This authenticity intertwines rather potently with the film’s depiction of young love: The tooth-brushing scene (you know which one I mean) is one of the sweetest I’ve seen in contemporary cinema, admittedly in part due to the crooked smile of one Jesse Bradford. And, it boasts a career-best performance from Kirsten Dunst, emotions shown blankly on her face as she dances like a maniac to a mixtape that serenades her “pom poms” and vows to feed her “bon bons.”
And yet, there are the stylistic things that infuse “Bring It On” with its own all-American aesthetic. Decked out in full ’90s fashion with belly shirts and crimped hair, the characters develop their own brand of teen jargon: “She puts the ‘itch’ in ‘bitch’ ” and “Follow me or perish, sweater monkeys” most notably spring to mind. There’s camerawork comparable to the heavyweight caliber of Roger Deakins (of Coen Brothers fame), in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of way. Check the whooshing camera tracking from foot to face when introducing, center screen, the head cheerleader of the rival school, Jesus light glimmering in the background.
“Bring It On” gets better and better with every viewing, and there’s not many movies you can say that about. I think it’s because there’s something discreetly original about it. While you can lump the film into a host of categories — whether a modern screwball made up of bobble-headed ditzes or a postmodern parable on ownership and originality — “Bring It On” is most accurately a film of its own caliber, completely comfortable in its own unremarkable skin.
Toward the end of the film, Torrance says to another character: “I am only cheerleading.” That is, both sheepishly and exquisitely, an encapsulation of the entire existence of “Bring It On” — for better or worse.