Stick It: Power to the People!
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.
I did a mini-review of Stick It a while back, but since we've been searching for some positive vibes here lately at Heroine Content, I decided to re-watch it and pay more attention. I was so glad I did.
Stick It tells the story of Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym), a former Olympic-level gymnast who (for reasons unknown to anyone but Haley) walked off the team as they were poised to take gold. Collared by the cops after some good-spirited destruction of a vacant home, she is sentenced by the judge to return to gymnastics training or face jail time.
She's sent to a gym run by Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), a gruff but kind coach who has a rep for injuries in his trainees. If you're sensing there may be a "wiser older man coaching a rebellious young woman so she can find her true potential while he redeems himself" theme coming up, you're right, and it includes all the elements you'd expect to find in a sports movie - lots of prescribed running, some pushing, some mockery. Haley doesn't get any breaks because she's a girl. She's expected to work her butt off, and so are the rest of her teammates. At one point, Haley's voiceover narration goes something like this: "Elite gymnastics is like the Navy SEALS, only harder."
Four of the five main gymnast characters have backgrounds that require physical strength, according to their IMDB.com biographies. Missy Peregrym played soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey in high school and also snowboards. Nikki SooHoo, who plays Wei Wei, is a dancer. Maddy Curley, who plays Mina, is a former college gymnast. Haley's nemesis and former teammate Tricia is played by Tarah Page, who ranked 18th in the Country on the U.S. National Women's Gymnastics Team in 2001. According to the commentary track and credits, the extras in the film who play gymnasts in the gym and at meets are high school, college, and even Olympic gymnasts. No worries here about casting scrawny little stick girls who don't look like they could even climb up onto a balance beam, let alone do a routine on one. And also according to the commentary track, there was a fairly punishing training regimen involved for these actors before filming even began.
I could have wished for more diversity amongst the cast. The only actor in a speaking role for whom no athletic background was described was Joanne, played by Vanessa Lengies - her mother is Egyptian. I can't find details of Nikki SooHoo's background, but she appears to be of Asian descent. Aside from these two actors - who granted are two of the four gymnasts with speaking roles in Haley's gym - it's basically a sea of white faces. If you're casting competitive gymnasts from the U.S. for many of your extras, this may reflect the population, but there were also plenty of extras shown at meets who simply walked by the camera dressed like gymnasts. It would have been nice to see the filmmakers take that opportunity to broaden our perspective. And while there were few adults in speaking roles, there were enough to provide some diversity there as well.
Where the movie really gets feminist to me is with Haley's development in the course of the film. One of her complaints in her rebellious stage is that competitive gymnastics is a rigged game. "It doesn't matter how well you do, it matters how well you follow their rules." One way to write her progression away from that rebellious stage and back into succeeding in gymnastics is to negate that truth. Instead, the script offers Haley the opportunity to add to that knowledge. It absolutely does matter how well you do, and then it ALSO matters how well you follow their rules. Haley gradually takes control of her own performance and her own life again as she works on her gymnastics.
Rather than submitting to the rule structure as one of those things you just have to live with, Haley and her teammates decide to take action when Mina is scored down on a perfect vault by judges who have a grudge against Vickerman. Haley's leadership qualities really come to the forefront as she figures out a plan and then works quickly with the help of her teammates to bring all of the competing gymnasts into a community. They turn the competition into a chance for individuals to excel and be appreciated by others who have worked just as hard as they have, letting the community judge instead of being judged from outside.
One of the other things I really appreciated about this film was the relationship between Haley and her two male friends. The three of them are just that - friends - which is refreshing in a Hollywood where it seems like any time a woman and a man are in the same room together, there must! be! sexual! tension! The two goofball guys really care about Haley and they support her no matter what. Their continued involvement in her life despite her re-entry into gymnastics is another sign that the filmmakers are letting Haley be both - angry teen and keen-eyed analyst of the gymnastics machine, hair-sprayed pretty girl gymnast and baggy-clothes-wearing street biker, competitive athlete and laid back friend.
If you've read the site for any length of time, you know that I've been looking for another film that makes me as happy as Aliens, Tank Girl, and Underworld on the Heroine Content. My friends, this does, and I'm giving it four stars. (When they start to make movies this good and cast women of color in the lead roles, we're just going to have to build a five star category.)
I will close by saying this: if you have never seen an Asian woman do a spinning headstand (or whatever the kids call it) on a balance beam while performing a gymnastics routine to hip hop, you have not lived.