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Stick It

Gymnastics is about the only thing that keeps me interested in the summer Olympics anymore (sorry, but televised archery and water polo just don’t grab my attention). It requires tremendous strength and physical control but the rigid sport is also known for being psychologically demanding on its young participants. So, what do you do when the pressure gets to be too much and the rules begin to seem silly? Stick It suggests gymnasts use its title as a battle cry for what the coaches and judges should do with the pommel horse.

Haley Graham, a highly gifted young athlete, stunned the gymnastics community by mysteriously walking out on her team mates at the prestigious World Championship. Plunged into an unexplained life of rebellion, Haley became a frequent visitor to the juvenile detention center. Her problematic parents have reached their wits end (a short trip) and the judge offers Haley a choice: go to a military academy or return to gymnastics. Haley chooses the military academy so the judge wryly ships her off to gymnastics instead.

Haley’s new coach Burt Vickerman is better known for turning out injured gymnasts than championship competitors and his rough and tumble style quickly clashes with Haley’s authority issues. The two finally unlock horns when Burt agrees to get Haley trained for a competition where the prize money would be enough to pay off the restitution she owes the court.

What Burt doesn’t bargain for are the effects Haley’s boat rocking attitude has on the rest of his team and neither of them is prepared for what happens when Burt uncovers the reasons behind Haley’s strange championship walk-out and troubled past. With all that emotional tension unleashed, Vickerman and his team find themselves poised to turn the gymnastics world on its head (which is really hard to do since gymnasts spend a lot of their time upside down anyway).

Stick It writer Jessica Bendinger was responsible for the script behind the horrific Aquamarine and her writing for Bring It On gave the world of cheerleading the same teeny-pop shake up treatment she now lends to gymnastics. With that kind of abysmal history with teen movies I wasn’t expecting anything but fluff from this offering. Instead, I was stunned to find a completely different movie experience, one with witty humor, an engaging plot and believable teenage characters – for the first two thirds of the film anyway.

Somewhere around the time Burt is discovering Haley’s sad little secret, the movie shifts from enjoyable teen flick to a ridiculous, unbelievable and disappointing rock-our-world-through-rebellion brain fart. During a key championship event, one of Haley’s teammates gets a poor score for a perfect performance. The judge’s explanation: the competitor’s bra strap was showing, a violation of the rules. Like a bunch of brainwashed Spice Girl fans, everyone else in the competition launch a pointless and frivolous protest against the uptight judges. The movie’s entire finale abandons the solid foundation it began with and turns into a whiny complaint that gymnastics needs less form and precision and more freedom of expression and extreme sport characteristics. Look Bendinger, if there’s one sport that doesn’t need to be anymore extreme it’s gymnastics (it doesn’t get much more extreme than the iron cross). If you’re looking for an activity to shake up, try something that could actually use it like, say, shuffleboard.

On the flip side, Bendinger tackles Stick It as her first directorial effort and doesn’t do a bad job with it. The movie captures all the energy and intensity of the rigorous gymnastics world and the camera work for the actual performances is fun to watch. Jeff Bridges and Missy Peregrym are sharp as Burt and Haley and lend the teen flick some much needed dramatic cred, though I’m still tired of seeing 23 year olds playing the teenage lead roles. The supporting cast is spot on for a movie like this and their performances offer the kinds of juvenile humor (read plenty of trendy one liners, cross dressing and fart jokes) that keeps the teens in the audience laughing.

Bendinger is on the right track, having now written and directed a film that gets it almost 70% right. Still, she has a little further to go before she finds the formula for a teen chick movie that manages a powerful message without insulting everyone’s intelligence.