Those culture consumers who’ve never really understood the old adage that life is like high school will be further flummoxed by Bring It On, which frames high school cheerleading as a microcosm of the real world (or perhaps—judging from the use of MTV staples like strobe-speed editing, garish set design, anonymous power-pop soundtrack, and hordes of stylist-retaining young irritants—The Real World) in all its racial and sexual tensions and cutthroat bitch-eat-bitch corporate-style competition. All the girls are 16 going on 29, and all of them fire off misanthropic quips like they’re at a Friars Club roast scripted by the Heathers.
Most recognizably human among them is maniacally perky senior Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), recently elected cheer captain of the national-champ Toros squad in a tony, lily-white San Diego suburb. Bored with her condescending boyfriend (he’ll soon be replaced by a dark horse who—get this—listens to this crazy punk band called the Clash) and disheartened by her loathsome crew of poisonous snapdragons, Torrance discovers that her predecessor stole their routines from a mostly black squad, the Clovers, who cheer for a financially strapped East Compton school. This twist means that Bring It On puts a new leaping spin on the old rock’n’roll tradition of, um, appropriating black ideas for white(bread) audiences, and the movie gets you thinking despite itself. The Clovers, led by the regal anti-Torrance, Isis (Gabrielle Union, not in the movie nearly enough), have the more interesting story (albeit one tailor-made for an inspirational morning-show segment), but their existence is just a device for nudging Torrance’s race anxieties. Brandishing white privilege in the form of white guilt, her do-gooder exhibitionism reaches its apex when she shows up at a Clover practice waving a Daddy-signed check to fund their trip to Nationals.
Screenwriter Jessica Bendinger exhibits a numbing fixation on the sadism of teenage girls (she misses that chestnut of wisdom found in Welcome to the Dollhouse: High schoolers do continue with the nasty badinage of junior high, “only not so much to your face”). Bendinger and leering director Peyton Reed (who, equipped with fantastic gymnasts among his extras, can’t once fit an entire stacking formation in the frame) richly deserve each other: She’ll pen a locker-room scene in which one skinny cheerleader tells another, “You put the ass in massive,” and he’ll shoot the girls tottering about in their undies and bending over on cue, in sync. At least reigning jailbait Dunst, who’s been infusing wise young blood into movies for going on a decade, delivers a performance as sprightly and knowingly daft as her turn in Dick. She provides the only major element of Bring It On that plays as tweaking parody rather than slick, strident, body-slam churlishness.