The Cheerocracy Reigns Supreme: Bring It On (2000)
The dominant form of movie genres is always changing. The screwball comedy, the historical epic, the western, they all had their day. The '80s and '90s featured the action film and the blockbuster comedy vying for dominance, and the new century of filmmaking has belonged to superhero adaptations. But even in those master genres, sub-genres appear — horror begot the thriller, the slasher, the supernatural jump scare flicks.
In the films focusing on the worlds of the modern teenager, those films featured close to 30-year-old performers portraying the joy, promiscuity, and angst of the modern teenage experience. The last great innovation was the competition movie, pitting two groups of skilled performers against each other on the road to glory and immortality. They’ve done great business, and launched the careers of performers from Nick Cannon to Channing Tatum, or made established stars like Anna Kendrick into multifaceted mainstream performers.
And they owe all that success to Bring It On.
Bring It On is the story of the Rancho Carne High School cheerleading squad, the Toros, lead by cheer captain Torrance Shipman (played by a pre-Spider-Man Kirsten Dunst) on their road to a fifth national championship. A freak accident at the first practice of the school year leads to an unexpected in-season audition, and the clear choice is Missy (Eliza Dushku), a talented gymnast reluctant to take up the pom-poms. Missy is prompted to join the team from the ribbings of her brother Cliff (Jesse Bradford), who has chemistry (class), figuratively and literally, with Torrance. But a few things stand in the way of happiness for everyone involved, including Torrance's college-bound boyfriend... and the fact that former cheer captain Big Red stole the team’s routines and cheers from the East Compton Clovers. The Clovers new captain, Isis (Gabrielle Union), will not be idly accepting of the intellectual thievery, and sets out to defeat the Toro’s on the stage and in their own stadium. Shenanigans and hard times ensue, until Torrance finds her voice as a captain and creative director of the team, and leads them to well earned finish at the national championship.
Peyton Reed, future (ball-carrier-to-the-finish-line) director of Ant-Man, has a kinetic and playful visual style, evoking classic movie musicals and music video editing. He captures the early 2000s post-rave-scene, day-glo aesthetic of athletic gear, crop tops and full length casual pencil skirts with a sharp eye. The performance sequences showcase the intensity of competitive cheerleading, and he uses character beats in those performances to further build relationships, such as Torrance and Cliff’s various flirting rituals. Torrance’s story is the main through-line of the film, but Missy’s inexperience allows us to learn the ins and outs of the cheerleading world.
The competition is fierce and spirited, and while the plot machinations add some unnecessary drama that keep lead actors Dunst and Union in scenes together, those moments are kept to a swift pace that keeps the story moving. Dunst makes the leap from child star to legitimate starlet, in a performance that evokes an earnest Tracy Flick focused on cheerleading instead of student government. Bring It On also functions as a pre-9/11 time capsule — it’s a bit raunchy and definitely not PC to modern standards. It has the kind of frank teenage sexuality that would become forbidden in film; it was able to maintain a PG-13 despite an exchange where Missy asks another character "Do you speak fag?", and includes a male teenager anally fingering a female character during a routine. These kind of overt sexual acts would never find their way to a current PG-13 rated film, and the frank conversations of homosexuality in teenagers lead to the recent teen comedy G.B.F. to receive a scarlet letter R-rating from the MPAA.
But beyond being a playful look at the world of competitive cheerleading, Bring It On’s lasting legacy is it being the genesis film of the competitive teenage film for a new age. Drumline followed shortly after, a college-based tale aimed at high school kids, along with Step Up, which helped launched Channing Tatum's career. Ryan Murphy’s Glee owes a modicum of its success on the unique way Bring It On aped the competitive extra curricular life of the American teenager. But the peak of the genre is arguably Pitch Perfect, an infinitely rewatchable take on the format that substitutes the cheerleading for accapella choir. As the teenage-driven market changed to focus on YA adaptations, Hollywood tried to develop an original IP — two sets of competitive talented teenagers seemed like a blueprint to success.
I have a fairly deep affinity for Bring It On. I originally went to see it out of the curiosity of fame proximity — a group of cheerleaders from my high school had taken part in background filming for the regional competition during the spring break of my senior year. Interested in the extent of their roles, I attended the film expecting a ridiculous premise. But I was pleasantly surprised at the speed of the storytelling and the wit at its heart. It’s an excellent way to remember some of the more ridiculous aspects of high school, especially if you’ve competed in extra curricular activities. And the premise of Bring It On makes it an easy shorthand for a movie going experience — "Well, it’s like Bring It On set in 4H."
Admit it, that sounds like an intriguing premise, doesn’t it?