April 28th, 2006
“Stick It” is one strange film. First and foremost a juvenile delinquent gymnastics movie, the plot soon sputters to many other ideas and in wild directions. Somewhere in the middle of all this overdirected mush is Jeff Bridges, who deserves an award for simply being able to stand in the same frame as his obnoxious co-stars.
Haley (Missy Peregrym, “Smallville”) is a troublemaking teen girl faced with a choice between juvenile detention or a chance to return to the sport she despises: gymnastics. Handed over to a tough coach (Jeff Bridges), Haley bristles at this affront to her integrity. After a short period of rebellion, the talented gymnast soon starts to believe in herself again, and through her gifts, looks to challenge the sport’s rules and the expectations of her teammates.
I suppose there should some amount of praise for writer/director Jessica Bendinger, who attempts to give the formulaic “Stick It” a distinctive visual personality, along with unusual acting pedigree in the form of Jeff Bridges. Yeah, I’m not sure what he’s doing in a film like this either. Regardless of the effort, the director can’t hide that she’s made a spastic and ultimately directionless film.
Likely feeding off a past teen success story with her screenplay for “Bring It On” (along with work on “Aquamarine” and “First Daughter”), Bendinger wants “Stick It” to be the ultimate teen anthem. But like a father of four with a fauxhawk, Bendiger’s efforts to give her picture a skate punk vibe ultimately reveal its hollow intentions. “Stick It” is visually chaotic from the get-go, striving to convey Haley’s rough attitude with lots of cutting, a box set worth of soundtrack tunes, and loads of flashy eye-in-the-sky crane work.
Most of the ornamentation is derivative, MTV-inspired junk that makes for a long sit, but there’s a feeling behind every shot that Bendinger is petrified to lose the attention of her target demographic, so she overcompensates anyway she can. “Stick It” feels counterfeit and coldly calculated when Bendinger orders the umpteenth music montage (though some of them are kaleidoscopic and surreal) or asks Haley to represent a completely bastardized notion of a “punk” attitude (complete with shameful metal horns). And the director ruins a chance to enjoy the artistry and purity of gymnastics with her incessant need to cut the sequences to shreds to goose the whirling energy she’s desperate to depict.
Also tiring is Bendinger’s inclusion of Haley’s two male friends. Obviously intended to add a sense of tween swoon and comedy to the story, the actors enthusiastically fail to provide either. Instead, through lines directly lifted from Kevin Smith and the noxious attitudes that typically accompany two young actors who’ve been told they’re funny, the boys are an unwanted distraction the characters and the film doesn’t need.
One of the more interesting miscalculations of “Stick It” is found in Haley. Perhaps Bendinger’s intention was to shape a sense of female empowerment in the character, who uses her malicious attitude and general teen ennui to play by her own rules; but the director overplays her hand, and Haley ends up being a thoroughly unlikable character. Watching a film anchored by a rebellious young girl is one thing, but Haley is an obnoxious brat, mean to her fellow gymnasts, and played with a nauseating lack of restraint by Missy Peregrym. Bendinger tries to shoehorn in the obligatory change of heart scene late in the game, but the mistake to not let Haley breath as a human during the midsection of the film is what comes back to haunt her, and when the time comes to care, the emotion is noticeably lacking.
It should come as no surprise to read that Jeff Bridges is the only one in the cast to give a full bodied reading of his character. The veteran comes through like a champ as the stern coach, shading the character delicately as a man who willingly lies to parents to keep their kids enrolled in his gymnast factory, but also has deep concern for their well being on the mats. The mere presence of Bridge helps goose Peregrym to greener acting pastures in their scenes, and elevates this threadbare teen fare at least halfway to distinction.
While “Stick It” opens as a troubled teen drama, which segues into a competition story, the theme of the film’s finale is both inspired and completely bewildering: Bendinger is hoping to expose the archaic methods of judging that plague the sport. Rewarding points for established method over individual artistic achievement, the judges go directly against Haley and her unorthodox ways, leaving the finale a battle of wills instead of a battle of talent. It’s a nice change of pace, if a bit underdeveloped, and gives “Stick It” a unique perspective the rest of the film is missing.
My rating: C