Sunday, June 16, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Stick It’

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As the world watched Simone Biles take an unprecedented stance against a sport and a system designed to wear her down to a nub, I couldn’t help but think of Stick It. Jessica Bendinger’s directorial debut isn’t as polished as, say, Bring It On, the movie she wrote before writing and directing Stick It. However, Stick It is far more interesting in both structure and how it portrays its characters.

At the same time, the film’s aesthetic reeks of the early aughts. People complain about how older movies feel dated. Sometimes it is a critique meant to address the bigotry of the time diplomatically. But they are often responding to how the film seems rooted in the time it was made and drenched in the world it was released.

It’s not that it’s dated; it’s that it dares not to be ashamed of the time the movie was made.

I like that about movies. Art is timeless, but that comes from the art itself, not things like song choices, special effects, or popular tropes. With a soundtrack that features Blink 182, Missy Elliot, and Jurassic 5, Stick It is unapologetically a movie frozen in the amber of 2006.

Bendinger not being ashamed of the era she made her movie does not mean she has made a cookie-cutter film. Though at first, it may seem like it. Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym), a once-famous gymnast, walked away from the World’s Championship and is now a skater girl popping wheelies at suburban construction sites. But, unfortunately, a stunt goes too far. The cops show up, and soon she finds herself having to choose between juvie and VGA, a gymnastics school in Houston.

But Bendinger allows Hayley to be stubborn and kind of annoying. She’s right to feel what she feels, but it’s how she goes about expressing herself and treating other people. Hayley is a teenage girl who is furious at the world around her.

Yet, Bendinger is careful to make it clear Hayley doesn’t need saving. None of these girls at the VGA (Vickerman Gymnastics Academy) do. What they need is someone to care for them, to be understood. In her way, Bendinger has wrapped a sports movie about teenage girls finding themselves inside an angry expose about how they are treated like props by everyone from their parents and the very sport they find themselves participating in.

The academy is run by Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), a has-been who wants his athletes to be safe, unlike most coaches we see in these types of movies. Bridges isn’t slumming here; he is giving his usual Bridges charm and seemingly effortless acting in which he delivers every line as if Burt Vickerman wrote it. It doesn’t hurt that Peregrym seems fearless in how she makes Hayley petty, judgemental, but also scared and hurt.

However, being the new girl means having to contend with Joanne (Vanessa Lengies). Joanne is the star pupil or thinks she is. She’s mean, spoiled, and can’t understand why Burt has brought in what many in the gymnastics world view as a traitor for walking away. But as Stick It goes on, we begin to see Joanne’s facade begin to crack. Unlike Hayley, she has not been allowed to escape the system or even express dissatisfaction or criticisms of it.

Lengies plays Joanne with a fair bit of snark, but she does it in a way where you can see the scared girl just underneath the surface. There is a moment where after she performs, Burt goes over to congratulate her, and she pulls him in for a hug. He pushes her away while she struggles to try and hold onto the hug. Bendinger doesn’t play it for laughs, and neither does Lengies or Bridges. He is uncomfortable, and she is desperate for a parental figure who has more to offer than judgment.

Joanne and the other girls aren’t allowed to be anything but gymnasts. Partially this is the price you pay, as Bendinger doesn’t sugarcoat how dangerous gymnastics is. But there is a balance, and so many parents want their daughters to be gold medal winners, a promise made by Burt in the hopes of getting their tuition money and donations to fund the academy. Soon, with Hayley’s arrival and the fact that she has friends who are boys, she’s no longer viewed as a traitor but as something out of a storybook.

Haley’s parents seem unable to communicate with her, especially now that their marriage has collapsed. The judge who gives Hayley a choice between jail and gymnastics even seems to be pitying her. So many of the adults do not seem to have the girl’s best interest at heart, which makes the ones who do feel so unique and heartbreaking. The adults don’t have the answers and, at times, seem as lost as the teens.

Bendinger isn’t afraid to be sentimental. For instance, the scene in which Hayley breaks down crying and tells Burt why she left the World’s competition. It is effective because Bendringer gives her actors the time and room to build the emotion. In another movie, this scene might be corny or melodramatic, but Bendinger plays it small and lets the emotion build.

One of the main reasons Stick It works so well is Missy Peregrym. With her lean and muscular build and infectious smile, she both anchors and steals every scene. When you consider that Peregrym shares half of her scenes with Jeff Bridges, you realize how impressive that is. She’s so good it’s almost stunning she isn’t in more movies.

Above all, what makes Stick It remarkable is the finale. One of the girls, Mina (Maddy Curley), is deducted points after a flawless pole vault routine because her bra strap shows. It is a straw that breaks the gymnasts’ back. Haley tells us in voice-over, “It doesn’t matter how well you do. It’s how well you follow their rules.”

Rarely has a teenage sports movie wholly and eloquently understood the systemic issues within its own sport. Bra-straps, un lady-like behavior, and of course any use of music deemed unworthy by the judges, which wouldn’t you know it, often tends to be pop or hip-hop music. But Stick It goes one step further and acknowledges that the girls are forced to follow rules they themselves did not draft. These rules were written without them, about them, but does not consider them.

In a remarkable moment, the girls begin to realize their power and not only challenge the authority but essentially render the authority of the judges meaningless. Of course, sports movies are no stranger to politics. Still, they are so rarely about this particular brand of firebrand politics in which our characters don’t compete so much as participate in outright protest and defiance.

Amidst all of this, Bendinger is having fun. What makes Stick It stands out besides the last third of the movie is how Bendinger and her cameraman Daryn Okada frame it all. On the surface, Okada and Bendinger shoot Stick It in a straight forward no-frills fashion. But when it comes to the girls performing their tricks, they borrow from Bugsy Berkely and music videos of the time. 

Troy Takaki’s editing aids Okada’s camera and Bendinger’s direction. For 2006, Stick It cracks the mold in its visual style. It slips into montages filled with gymnastic tricks mixed with choreographed aerial shots with hallucinatory dream-like sequences mixed in. Takaki’s editing is some of the best of the genre for that time in its exactness and creative montages. 

One of the puzzling aspects of Stick It is how Bendinger didn’t have a director’s career afterward. Peyton Reed, who directed Bring It On, went on to the MCU. Bring It On may be more polished, but it is not nearly as interesting, narratively or visually, as Stick It.

Stick It is a movie about an irascible teenage jerk forced to return to a sport she despises to avoid jail time. But it’s how it goes about all this and how it blindsides us with a genuinely audacious ending that makes it stand out. It is far from a perfect film, but its sly mixture of heart and bratty attitude make it worthy of the gold.

Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

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