THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The main character in Stick It informs us that becoming a competitive gymnast requires training that is, in its own way, every bit as grueling as the training needed to be a Navy SEAL; however, there are more SEALs in the world than there are ranked gymnasts. That’s a sobering thought, if it’s true. Even if it’s not, it is probably not off the mark by much. Any list of really hard things to do would certainly have to include gymnastics. Rocket science and brain surgery would also be on that list.

Missy Peregrym plays the aforementioned character, Haley Graham. She was once a top gymnast but inexplicably walked out during the world championship, costing her team a gold medal in the process. Since that time, she’s been getting into her share of legal trouble. A sympathetic judge gives her the choice of entering a juvenile detention facility or training at a Texas gymnastic academy. Haley chooses detention; the judge orders gymnastics.

The academy’s owner is Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), who was once a gymnast himself until an injury forced him out of the game. Now he offers young women (and their overeager families) false hopes of Olympic gold. This has made Vickerman a laughing stock within the field. Like Haley, he’s more or less on his last chance. Haley doesn’t want to be studying at his school, partly because she’s become a pariah in the gymnastics world and partly because she’s too angry to return to her former sport. She immediately faces the ire of the other girls on the team, most notably Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), the resident snob of the group. Haley tries to walk away, but Vickerman encourages her to participate in an upcoming competition, if only to earn money for her legal restitution. Joanne and the others wonder if she will bolt from their team as well.

Stick It was written and directed by Jessica Bendinger, who also penned the cheerleader comedy Bring It On. Both films take a hard, appreciative look at their subjects. Some things are hard but look easy; gymnastics are hard and look hard. Effectively using overhead cameras, the director shows how these girls flip, twist, and contort their bodies in event after event. At times, the training exercises performed by the characters are choreographed like an old Busby Berkley musical. You get a strong sense of how demanding vaulting, parallel bars, and floor routines are.

Of course, this kind of athletic appreciation means nothing if you don’t care about the people on screen, and in this regard the movie is a mixed bag. One of the things I liked about Bring It On was that it had interesting characters in the forefront, but the supporting characters were well developed too. Stick It has three really strong characters – Haley, Joanne, and Vickerman – but the people around them are unfocused. The other girls on the team don’t seem to have much in the way of personality, and Haley’s constantly-visiting male buddies seem to be out of another movie altogether. Whenever the pop up, the story stops in its tracks.

The film is better when it stays with the main trio. Missy Peregrym gives a performance that is charismatic and appealing. You can believe her as a rebel but also as someone who once took gymnastics seriously. Her scenes with Jeff Bridges transcend the clichés of coach/athlete relationships in movies. A lot of actors in similar roles do that “tough love” thing. Bridges brings a different dynamic: he’s both tough and tender at the same time. The actor plays Vickerman as though he almost believes he’s the loser everyone tells him he is. What’s the point in being the samurai coach if it’s not likely to produce any results anyway? Peregrym and Bridges have a good scene about three-fourths of the way through. Haley finally reveals why she walked away from the world championship and, without grandiose speeches, Vickerman empathizes. It’s a nice moment that, surprisingly, rings true instead of playing like a plot point.

The best part of Stick It is also its biggest flaw. On the plus side, the movie argues that the judging system in gymnastics is inherently unfair. Gymnasts strive to give judges the demanded-upon perfection, even though there is technically no such thing. The scoring system in these events seems unbalanced; tiny flaws outweigh complex movements in the eyes of the judges. What are we to make of a system in which a young woman can beautifully perform a complicated routine, only to be docked big points because her bra strap showed after flipping around in the air? I liked the passion with which the story argued that point.

But – and this is a big but – I didn’t believe the late plot twist that is used to convey the point. It’s almost completely implausible that these characters would do what they do to take a stand. Not when there’s so much at stake. After being shown how demanding it is to train for serious competition, I found it absurd to think that these young women would risk it all, just to send a message. Surely there was a way to argue that some rebellion is needed in the sport without resorting to such an unlikely turn of events. To some degree, the message gets lost because the movie works so hard to pound it home.

There’s a very good movie in here somewhere. The story of how Haley learns to mix her old disciplined identity with her new, more contrarian one works. So does the inside look at the pros and cons of competitive gymnastics. What doesn’t work are the weird fantasy sequences, the hyped-up music video style direction, and the cast of supporting characters. Some slight trimming would have made a marked difference in the film’s outcome. There’s some terrific stuff in the picture, but the weaker elements ruin the fun to some degree. Am I being like the judges? Am I unfairly giving more weight to the flaws than to the strengths? Perhaps. But, as the film points out, gymnastic judging is not fair. Neither is film criticism.

( 1/2 out of four)

Stick It is rated PG-13 for some crude remarks. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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