Stick It

(2006) ** 1/2 Pg-13
105 min. Touchstone Pictures. Director: Jessica Bendinger. Cast: Missy Peregrym, Vanessa Lengies, Jeff Bridges, Nikki SooHoo, Maddy Curley.

Teetering between stupidity and shrewdness, Jessica Bendinger's Stick It is a mash-up of clichés (from teen and sports movies) and insights into the twin teen testing grounds of social and athletic competition. Bendinger, who wrote the similarly themed cheerleader pic Bring It On, makes her feature debut stylishly colorful, energetic, and even—on occasion—authentic to the spirit if not the realistic detail of gymnastics and teen life among suspect adult role models.

Missy Peregrym (Life as We Know It) plays 17-year-old Haley Graham, a bad girl compelled to show off with reckless behavior. We know she's a bad girl because she wears a Ramones T-shirt and a sneer...and she causes thousands of dollars in property damage doing bike stunts on a construction site. Sentenced to a gymnastics academy (a fate worse than death to the estranged former gymnast), Haley puts up her best defenses against the academy's owner and head coach, Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges).

Naturally, the academy provides an opportunity to play Haley's cynicism against a collection of female "types"—notably snobby, mom-whipped moron Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), who will triumphantly come up with an important idea, and slack-jawed Asian girl Wei Wei (Nikki Soohoo), who will finally seize her chance to cut loose. By expecting the best from Haley, Burt both repels and attracts the conflicted star athlete, who already scratched her career once by mysteriously walking away from the world playoffs. Sizing up Burt's obedient team, Haley asks, "Is he keeping your brains in jars, or should I be concerned about the water?"

Before long, Haley has taught everyone around her to reawaken a love of sport for its own sake and not for competition, especially as evaluated by ultra-conservative judges set in their way: consistency over flash. In critiquing stodgy judging standards, Bendinger grinds an axe big enough for Paul Bunyan and implies that film critics should get out of her face as well. "I wasn't great," Haley says of her first time around the gymnastics world. "I was obedient. I'm tired of being judged."

Peregrym has a winning presence and does her part convincingly to support the illusion that she's a championship-level gymnast. Nearly everyone around her is comic relief—including her amusingly random male best buds Poot (John Patrick Amedori) and Frank (Kellan Lutz). How, Bendinger seems to ask, can you dislike a movie with a skater burnout called Poot? Of course, the MVP is Bridges, who takes every opportunity to squeeze acting fun out of a fairly typical lovable rogue character. Bridges gives Burt a shrewd manner and a signature strut, with turned-up collar and turned-up toes propelling him around the academy.

Ultimately, Stick It proves minor, too lazy to perfect its own routine, with too-convenient character reversals and dramatic shorthand that proves Bendinger values flash over consistency (take that, judges!). Still, Stick It celebrates both dedication and high spirited romping, from zany malaprops to goofy coourtships to Busby Berkeley-styled floor exercises. As such, Bendinger lures us to a surprisingly appealing vacation, from sense to sensibility.

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