tuf skin

Jessica Bendinger’s Stick It, the story of a beautiful, brilliant gymnast who can’t stop rebelling, is a teenage girl’s escape fantasy and a teenage boy’s wet dream; you wouldn’t be surprised if it were an easy demographic triumph, but it’s a surprisingly good movie as well. What knocks you out is the Ms. Bendinger’s flair for shooting sports, which is hard. In its way, this is as well-shot a sports movie as Any Given Sunday or The Longest Yard, but with its own cheerfully surreal aspect — Ms. Bendinger is not afraid to steal a page from Busby Berkley or Richard Lester every now and then, showing us the girls from above improbably flexing together in a star shape, or overlapping kaleidescopically on the uneven bars. But in the more workmanlike moments the film is an excellent view of the movements of gymnastics, bold and direct, never retreating to the safety of a long shot, but never failing to let us see what’s important in the moment.

Equally impressive, all of Ms. Bendinger’s sight gags work, from a dream sequence in which potentially dangerous gymnastic tricks come bottled with childproof caps and warning labels to a hilarious bit in which the girls imagine the rickety judges doing gymnastic routines in their polyester blazers. There’s a great joke, not overdone, in which Jeff Bridges’ wily, pushy coach tries to motivate his team while pacing back and forth in front of a red-and-white wall. (The film is full of shocking blocs of color, sweet and tart without ever becoming candy-coated or impersonal.)

If Stick It falters slightly, it’s in the dialogue, which at first fails to convince, and sometimes in the characterization: minor characters flatten unnecessarily, and Missy Peregrym, though charming, is not always able to fully put flesh to the rebellious Haley. But she and Ms. Bendinger both have a powerful ally in Jeff Bridges, that smooth old pro, who makes the absolute most out of the dialogue and loosens up Ms. Peregrym’s performance; only with him does she seem completely natural. Their scenes together are great fun, and Bridges, in a kind of post-Dude state of permanent mellow, exhibits the same total ease and pleasure in front of the camera that Brando brought to his later roles.

Finally, the film has a flawless soundtrack, mixing classic arena rock with cultish underground hip-hop and showing excellent taste in both. I loved the use of Jurassic 5’s “The Game” as a kind of attack anthem when the girls walk into the inevitable championship — “fighting to survive… scheming to win, any way they can….” — the film is smart enough to know that Jurassic 5 doesn’t take that sentiment seriously, and it doesn’t, either. This movie is planted firmly in the vernacular of go-girl empowerment fantasy, but it empowers its girls in a very specific and consistent way, articulating in passing a fascinating critique of the culture of gymnastics, especially the judging. Ms. Bendinger (a former model) has no tolerance at all for the standards of perfection that crush young girls’ spirits, and her heroines learn to spite that system and do sport for their own sakes instead. What we expect to be — what is built up as — a standard sports-movie competition with an old rival instead becomes something else that’s more fun and, finally, more righteous.

At the same time, I felt a little uncertainty about the way the girls are shot — well, ogled, really. When Haley’s male friends, who hadn’t known she was a gymnast, come to see her at a competition, one of them gapes respectfully and wonders, “How did we not know about this sport before?” One can’t help feeling Ms. Bendinger might be trying to get boys in the audience (probably dragged there by their girlfriends) to feel the same way. Or perhaps she’s just trying for a fetishization of the athletic body beyond sexuality, along the lines of Riefenstahl’s Olympia. It’s a hard call (though I think I know how my 15-year-old self would have seen it), but even if Ms. Bendinger is out to make these girls sexy, there’s something a little daring in that, too. It’s peculiarly admirable that she might want to make teenage boys everywhere long for girls who are athletic, high-spirited, and driven to the point of a certain geeky awkwardness. The cattiness of a few of the relationships has led some reviewers to compare this to Tina Fey’s funny, bitter Mean Girls, but the girls in this film are more innocent and human than the Plastics. I’m pretty sure they could also take them in a fight.

I wanted Brokeback Mountain to be appallingly bad. It is, after all a tragic love story between gay cowboys — it’s almost as if National Lampoon paid them to do it. That it is, after all, merely conventional and a little too clean for its own good is, I suppose, a real achievement.

Almost nothing can be said about this film that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, but I found its most compelling aspect the idea that sexuality is not particularly fixed; that is, to say that Jack and Ennis are “gay” and “closeted” doesn’t really begin to cover the spectrum of what’s going on here. Sex in this film is as much about utility (emotional and social) as it is about orientation. In fact, every sexual encounter in the film serves some other need before it serves a particular “sexuality”: Jack and Ennis’ sexual relationship is merely a logical working-out of an intense and perhaps stunted male bonding; Ennis and Alma’s marriage is a stab at a “normal,” mature life; Jack’s marriage to Lureen is the same but with a twist — one senses it’s Lureen, more than Jack, who’s trying to put together a “normal” life; Ennis and Cassie’s relationship seems founded on genuine chemistry, and strikes us as no less sincere than his his relationship with Jack; while Jack’s cheating on both Ennis (with male prostitutes) and Lureen (with another woman in town) both seem like attempts to punish a frustrating and distant partner, rather than sexually motivated acts.

In short, although the sexuality adds a certain intensity to their longing and their commitment to one another, this is not really, or at least not entirely, a movie about gay cowboys. There must be a billion non-sexual permutations of this story — men who are unable to enter into family life, whose strongest relationships are with other men from their youth, who hate their work and their home and simply wait, with intense longing, for those few times a year when they can escape the grind of responsibility and disappointment. Jack fantasizes about the two of them starting a ranch together somewhere, but Ennis puts the kibosh on the idea, citing an incident from his childhood in which a gay man was brutally murdered. Yet one can’t help feeling that Jack’s idea is pure smoke from the word go — it’s hard to picture Ennis settling down with anyone.

And how well would this relationship fare if it didn’t always get to live in a Never-Never Land of mountains and streams and camping and fishing? How long would this ideal love survive if it were subjected to the same stresses and rigors that their real-life relationships were forced to withstand? Early in the film, when they already have two girls, Alma asks Ennis if they shouldn’t be using protection. Offended, he tells her if she doesn’t want to have his children, he can just lay off her. She responds, “I’ll have them if you’ll support them.” One can’t help wondering if part of his ongoing attraction to Jack is that Jack will never get pregnant, much less ask him to comfort a crying child or stay home with a sick one. Ennis is a loving father but largely absent from the girls’ lives, although nothing forces him to be. The greatest sense of waste and lost opportunity, for me, came not from Ennis and Jack’s separation but from his realization, near the end, that he doesn’t know the young man his daughter was going to marry; he’s two years behind on her boyfriends. This is played for light comedy, but a man who has let that kind of relationship slip through his fingers has bigger problems than repressed homosexuality.

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