Stick It

| May 6, 2006

Writer Jessica Bendinger (“Bring It On”) makes her directorial debut with “Stick It,” a spunky tweener story of a rebellious gymnast who reluctantly drags her sport into the 21st century. Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) abandoned the sport after walking out on world championships and costing her team the gold medal. Now something of a delinquent, Haley is forced in a rather improbable plot device to go back into training or face juvenile detention.
Her new coach is Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), and although Haley’s attitude and Vickerman’s slick but stern coaching style seem at first like oil and water, the two soon (predictably) develop a mutual respect for each other and form a father-daughterly bond that Haley desperately needs (she blames both her parents for different reasons for the dissolution of her family). Haley’s return to the gymnastics world is met with incredulity and resentment, especially by uptight and jealous Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), another of Vickerman’s gymnasts, and the teammates she left in the cold years before. Haley herself only agrees to compete for the purse money, and even then grudgingly—she decries the ridiculously arcane rules of gymnastics that require silly choreography and can cost an athlete a perfect score for her bra strap showing. When one judge goes too far, Haley organizes a rebellion, in which the gymnasts make up their own rules in protest, and for the first time in her life she is able to claim something as her own and feel proud of herself—she finally learns how to harness her rebellious energy and use it for something good.
Bendinger has become the go-to writer for updated versions of Disney-soft stories written in modern teen vernacular that can appeal to the more sophisticated tweeners of today. She obviously tries to accomplish the same feat with her directing, but her choppy music video style of directing hinders her story and fashions her as her own worst enemy. Sequences such as kaleidoscope visuals to Missy Elliott music make us feel we’re watching some crudely updated “Sesame Street” segment that should end with the resounding pronouncement of a number or letter. While such techniques might keep her target audience’s attention span from waning, they prohibit any real story or character development. In my experience, kids and teens respond just as strongly to a solid story and identifiable characters (see “Dirty Dancing” or “Harry Potter”) as their older counterparts do, and can see through gimmicks and bad writing just as easily, too.
Bendinger’s script might have been better served in the hands of a more capable director. Perhaps she was simply too close to her own material to realize that she lost sight of the guts of the story in the directorial process. Bendinger’s usual deft handling of syrupy sweet stories combined with sassy, modern young heroines falls apart here, and even Jeff Bridges’ pedigree can’t save it (what was he doing in this film, anyways? Seems more like Kurt Russell territory to me). Whatever the reason, “Stick It” does nothing of the kind—that elusive 10.0 remains elusive.

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