Released in 2000, Bring It On set itself apart from other teen comedies at the time. Unlike American Pie, it didn’t try to win an audience with raunchiness, and unlike teen rom-coms, it didn’t rely on heady relationship melodrama tucked beneath a veneer of in-the-moment pop culture jokes (ahem, She’s All That). On the film’s surface, it was a sharp, satirical look at the world of competitive high school cheerleading, with Kirsten Dunst as Torrance Shipman, the newly-minted captain of a squad on its way to their sixth consecutive national championship.
Happy and oblivious in her senior year of high school, Torrance has everything going for her: a perfect boyfriend, the top spot on the cheerleading squad, and a championship victory on the horizon. She’s surrounded by snarky airhead fellow cheerleaders who try to thwart her decisions at every turn, and the film is peppered with clever dialogue exchanges as Torrance deftly maneuvers around their BS, navigating her way through her new responsibilities. Enter Missy and a harsh dose of reality.
Missy (Eliza Dushku) is a new student transfer, an edgy gymnast who joins the squad and whose presence represents a rude awakening for Torrance in more ways than one. Not only does she clue Torrance in to her former captain stealing routines from an inner-city squad, but as a narrative device, she’s there to help Torrance make that rough and painful transition from high school to adulthood. In high school we live in this protective little bubble filled with friends and exams and extracurriculars, and while some of that prepares us for college and the world beyond, none of it truly prepares us for the responsibilities and the harsh realities of being on our own, of taking ownership of our mistakes and our faults, of trying to be better versions of ourselves. Missy helps remove the blinders from Torrance’s eyes, showing her a world that exists beyond her high school, and even her own city, by taking her down to East Compton to see the Clovers, whose cheers her former captain plagiarized.
There’s an element here of white performers co-opting and profiting off of black culture without giving credit where credit is due, as the Clovers’ captain, Isis (Gabrielle Union), informs Torrance that white girls have been slapping a blonde wig on their stuff for years without giving them so much as a thank you. (I don’t think Miley Cyrus has ever seen Bring It On.)
From there, Torrance realizes that her responsibilities aren’t as simple as just painting by a set of simple numbers to take her team to victory. Life isn’t handed to you on a silver platter: it’s about hard work. And even then, she still does everything she can to avoid the real work, going so far as to hire a choreographer -- the end result is hilariously cringe-inducing. And as much as the film is about growing up and accepting responsibility, it’s also about creating something organic and original, and the difficult work that goes into that creative endeavor, even if it is choreographing a cheerleading routine. But Bring It On also acknowledges that all art (yes, even cheerleading) copies other art, and when Torrance finally puts together her very own routine, she draws inspiration from swing dancing, classic musicals, martial arts and even mimes.
All of this makes the film sound terribly deep -- it’s a satirical cheerleading comedy that happens to have a witty script, clever dialogue and adorable stars (remember Jesse Bradford? He should have been a big deal). It also showed us that Kirsten Dunst had some serious comedic chops, and that a film about something as fluffy as cheerleading can be downright hysterical. Bring It On also proved, in a time when teen comedies were either overly sentimental and formulaic or overtly raunchy, that all you need is a great sense of humor and a relatable story to succeed.