When the plucky young women gymnasts get back at a group of unreasonable judges in Stick It, I wanted to stand up and cheer. As a fan of this dangerous sport, I’ve often booed the low scores dished out for some daring performances on the balance beam, bars and floor. Kudos to writer/director Jessica Bendinger for taking on the subject of gymnastics and showing us what a tough sport it is.
Bendinger, who also wrote the screenplay for the hit cheerleading comedy Bring It On, began participating in competitive gymnastics at age nine and continued until she was 12, so she knows something about what that world is really like. “Gymnastics is a very weird sport,” says Bendinger. “Even though it lives in the margins for us, culturally, it’s the top-rated Olympic sport, period. It’s very compelling and upsetting to see such young girls doing such dangerous things, so I think we watch it with a kind of fascination…at a distance, with a mixture of shock and awe. So one of the things I set out to do was to allow people to take a second look and realize that these girls are as strong as, if not stronger, football players and some of our greatest athletes.”
Stick It accomplishes Bendinger’s goal by telling the story of Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym), a former gymnast who walked out on her team right before an important World Competition. We first meet Haley after she’s given up the sport and taken up dirt biking with two neighborhood pals (Kellan Lutz and John Patrick Amedori). When Haley accidentally crashes through a window during one of her wild rides, she’s sentenced by a judge to spend time with hardnosed coach Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges) at his regimented Vickerman Gymnastic Academy.
While serving out her sentence, Haley matches wits with Burt and interacts with other gymnasts (some who hate her because of her past) as she changes from a sarcastic, selfish young woman to one with concern for her new coach and team mates. Peregrym does an excellent job showing how painful it is for Haley to get back into shape in order to compete in serious gymnastic meets. “If you enjoy falling, gymnastics is the sport for you,” her character explains during the narration of the film.
The biggest conflict between Haley and Burt involves a difference of opinion about how to perform. Haley wants to go all out with originality and power. Burt is more tuned in to the traditional approach and to the safety of his students. It’s in these confrontation scenes where Bridges shows his own considerable power as an actor. In researching the role, Bridges attended one of the National meets and videotaped the coaches. “I learned a lot that day about how coaches operate -- there is a lot of affection, they show a lot of encouragement to the athletes -- but there is also a kind of toughness that was interesting to observe and which seemed to work for my character,” he explained. I’ll say it worked! Bridges has never been better than he is here as a coach who uses authority, patience and humor to motivate the gymnasts in his charge.
Other cast members also provide some wonderful highlights in this clever comedy. My favorites are Vanessa Lengies and Nikki Soohoo. Both deliver very funny performances. Lengies plays an uptight gymnast who thinks of nothing but the sport and tosses off such malapropisms as “cardiovasectomy” with so much aplomb that we can’t help wondering if her messed-up words might not be the right ones. Soohoo, who portrays one of the youngest gymnasts, delights us with her befuddled facial expressions and a funky bar exercise.
Creative camera work by Daryn Okada (Just Like Heaven ) adds plenty of visual excitement to Stick It. A few of the movie’s uniquely filmed gymnastic sequences reminded me of those glorious Esther Williams water ballet numbers from days of yore. Okada believes this isn’t just a film about gymnastics. “It’s an action movie for teens,” he declares -- which probably accounts for his reliance on fast-paced cinematography throughout Stick It.
An action movie? Yes. But the film’s major emphasis is on self-realization and female empowerment. You go, girls!
(Released by Touchstone Pictures and rated “PG-13” for some crude remarks.)