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Let me share a high school memory, if I may. I wasn’t a cheerleader (they tend not to grow up into film critics), but some of my friends were. Arriving late to a basketball game one night, I scooted down the bleachers to sit next to my best friend, Corinne, who was agog with shock. “You won’t believe this,” she said. “Marshall High’s first cheer started out ‘My name is Suzy and I’m 5-foot-2!’” I said, “No!” She said, “Chuh!” I said, “No way!”—and it went on like this until the actual Suzies, a phalanx of boring blond bunnies whose repertoire included other suchlike vanilla-isms, performed again. Fifteen years old and it had never occurred to me, in my Los Angeles busing-era urban-public-school isolation, that there were cheerleaders who (1) were white and (2) didn’t rhyme things with “ass.” The megasexy sass of our black-and-Latina squad, in the words of Bring It On’s Lafred (Brandi Williams of the girl-group Blaque), “beat those Buffys down”; it was only later that I understood that the larger world perceives cheering to be a white-intensive, ass-free pastime.

Bring It On concedes the let’s-call-it-diversity among high-school cheerleaders, as well as the essential truth that competition-level cheering is really hard work. (It is, but so what?) The witty, ironic script by Jessica Bendinger pits San Diego’s all-white Rancho Carne Toros against East Compton High’s mixed band of Clovers for a rousing, good-natured lesson in civics, teamwork, and good sportsmanship. Unlike the competitions in most sports movies—whose trajectory Bring It On follows faithfully despite its youthful, feminine slant—the climactic clash is a genuine battle of the titans. Oliver Stone could take a lesson from Bendinger—how many men’s sports flicks claim that competing honestly is better than winning?

The film opens with the departure of Toros Captain Big Red (Lindsay Sloane), who entrusts leadership to pretty, blond, unquestioning squad soldier Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst, effortlessly beautiful and on her way to stardom). Short one member, Torrance takes on Missy Pantone (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Eliza Dushku), a misleadingly named raven-haired rebel whose audition cheer is a drawled “I transferred from Los Angeles. This dump doesn’t have a gymnastics team; you’re my last resort.” But Missy realizes what Torrance never did: that the Toros’ trophy-winning cheers have been systematically ripped off from the Clovers, an awesome inner-city team that hasn’t been able to raise the funds to attend competitions.

Although a closer, more individualized look at the Clovers might have made a more complex story, the script does have fun reconciling the Toros’ basically bubble-headed sense of entitlement with their new captain’s dawning consciousness. As an agent of social change, Torrance is an unlikely heroine—a mediocre student who puts popularity before probity, she’s a neo-valley girl whose notions of grassroots action involve bikini car washes and convincing Daddy to pay the rival team’s transportation costs.

A zingy, Clueless-style patois peppers the teens’ language, calibrated to reflect the characters’ inner depth—or lack thereof: “She puts the itch in bitch” runs one not-quite-logical trope beloved of the Toros’ Iagos, Whitney and Courtney; Missy’s cool misfit brother, Cliff (Jesse Bradford), protests a friend’s confession with “That was an overshare,” proving that he has more in common with Buffy’s Xander than just his crooked smile. The film puts spunky faith in Torrance’s strength and smarts even before she recognizes them herself: “Gauntlets were thrown,” she sighs with unwitting perspicacity after a confrontation at East Compton. Her erstwhile boyfriend, Aaron, now a college freshman, decorates his dorm walls with posters for Top 40 mediocrities Matchbox Twenty and Sugar Ray; his square-jawed duplicity is perfectly embodied by Richard Hillman, who looks like one of those slightly askew drawings of sexpot cads in ’60s romance comic books. Meanwhile, outsider Cliff wears a Clash T-shirt on his first day at school.

The film’s midsection is a sloppily handled montage in which the Toros struggle under the training of one Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts), a talent-limited martinet whose hi-NRG jazz-aerobics choreography leads to humiliation for the team at the regionals. This episode is full of laughs, but cheap ones—the gay-dictator act was hoary by the time Kenneth Mars sank his teeth into it in The Producers and Christopher Guest revived it in Waiting for Guffman, and Roberts isn’t given nearly as much to work with. The whole section just vamps in place while waiting for the plot to pick up again. And the script doesn’t fully justify the Toros’ disgrace: If competition officials know that Sparky is notorious for peddling the same routine all over California, they shouldn’t upbraid Torrance for unprofessionalism just because her team performs after another Sparky-trained troupe.

All of the setbacks and slapstick are there in service of Torrance’s newfound leadership: She has three weeks to come up with a new routine before the nationals. The now-re-energized Toros study swing dancing, martial arts, interpretive movement, and old musicals for inspiration. Peyton Reed’s direction is bouncy but uneven—about half the scenes are shapeless, and weird reaction shots undercut the rhythms. This second working-hard montage—quick-cut scenes with voice-over reporting from Torrance—is trimmer and more satisfying than the Sparky business, and the team’s DIY creativity and verve bring real punch to the final showdown.

Why Bring It On is being marketed as an unironic, uplifting sports movie that asks the audience to root in dead seriousness for its dirty-dancing, ogleworthy leads is a mystery. Bendinger’s script plays cheerleading as the social comedy it is, enforces its ditsiest stereotypes, and still manages to respect its strenuous demands. One of the film’s more pointed running jokes is the inept, consistently losing Rancho Carne football team; they’re lard-headed jocks who reflexively sling insults at the miniskirted rah-rah squad and haven’t figured out that the organized, hugely popular cheerleaders are their games’ only draw. In between the pyramid formations and syncopated rhymes, there are some sharply drawn characterizations: the imperiously professional Clovers captain, fittingly named Isis (Gabrielle Union); the laissez-faire, miraculously untormented gay student; the tough but naive Cliff, who personifies the fumbling eroticism of high school’s hormonal swampland; and the funniest pain-in-the-ass little brother on modern movie screens (whose “urgent message for sis” punch line is both disgusting and absolutely priceless). All of which helps Bring It On bring a level of depth and detail to teenage life that’s refreshing by itself—and nothing less than radical given how many pairs of “spanky pants” are photographed in the process. CP