Yeah, this'll sound crazy, but a middle-aged white guy who's not a perv can actually enjoy the snappy dialogue, astounding athletics and solidly sentimental sports clichés of Stick It, a witty jockette flick about girls' gymnastics. Granted, Knute Rockne and the Gipper weren't attitudinal suburban grrrlz redeemed by An Adult Who Believes in Them, but, well, kids are different these days: They listen to digital music instead of analog music. They ride little bikes and big skateboards instead of big bikes and little skateboards. They, um...well, y'see? They're not much different after all.
Haley Graham (the formidable-looking Missy Peregrym, an athletic, 23-year-old Canadian ex-model in her first major role) is a late-teenish risk-taker and troublemaker who, before we get to know her in the film, is already known to the cops and the court in her suburban Texas town. When her latest scrape with the law is about to put the obnoxious tomboy into juvenile detention, Haley's custodial father (Jon Gries) pulls strings to get her sent to the Vickerman Gymnastics Academy in Houston, three hours away. Haley actually screams to go to juvey instead. Why she hatin' on gymnastics? Because world-class athlete Haley, for mysterious reasons but seemingly just contrariness, had walked out on a championship meet a couple years back-killing her hard-working team's chances of making it to the World Finals. Her peers have never forgiven her, and the niche press and judges have never forgotten.
At VGA, she's under the thumb of coach Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), a tough softie who used to be a top gymnast himself before an injury retired him. A twinkle-eyed drill instructor, he runs a boot camp for petite athletes whose every parent he's promised the Olympics. The stage moms-living vicariously through daughters whose non-school hours are spent in a gymnasium Neverland-include Haley's estranged mother (Australian actress Gia Carides), a piece of work in a pushup bra, and a Mrs. Charis, the Medusa-like mom of ambitious, Haley-hating Joanne (Vanessa Lengies, who arcs believably through her character's growth). Playing the excellently scary Mother Charis is a nearly unrecognizable Julie Warner, now with Mick Jagger lips.
But the story's not about the parents, and most of the action's on the mats. With a phalanx of genuine gymnasts filling in for the young actresses-executing moves that would look like special effects if you didn't see such awesome athletics in the Olympics-the girls bicker, compete, choose sides, and ultimately stage an impromptu subversion at the climactic championship meet. Writer-director Jessica Bendinger, screenwriter of Bring It On, gets delightfully didactic about floor-judge favoritism and the arcana of the sport's rules, which she argues rewards trivialities and punishes innovation. The VGA team's subversion spreads through the other fed-up competitors until you're practically cheering for the revolution.
The picture's gemstones, however, are its sharp-tongued, conversational cannon-volleys. While Peregrym isn't the most far-ranging of actresses-she was chosen as much for own athleticism and muscularity as anything-she has a way with caustic asides. Bridges fills the bill of a charismatic charmer who genuinely loves and respects the sport and his young charges, although in a couple of scenes that require him to get all teary-eyed...well, let's just say we'd never have him play someone giving a eulogy.
The star of the picture really is Bendinger, though. Aside from her great ear for teen-girl bitch-speak, she's got an audacious eye for color and composition. Sometimes she gets a bit over-the-top, but never in a way that doesn't make you grin. Dads, take your daughters.