(us) wrote: Female characters in sports films are often dealt a very poor hand. At best their narrative journey is frequently depicted as ancillary and largely complimentary to those of the male participants, and at worst they are reduced either to eye candy or to bitchily carping from the sidelines. Sports films which focus primarily on women are rare and often tackle a particular sport or discipline in a much more patronising way than if the same sport were being practiced by men.All of this makes Stick It such a refreshing piece of filmmaking. Jessica Bendinger, the writer of the cult classic Bring It On, steps behind the camera to deliver a film which rises above its more conventional aspects to give a valuable, impressive insight into a sport often reduced to empty stereotypes. It remains a hugely underrated teen comedy-drama with a young lead who deserves much greater recognition.In my review of Gregory's Girl, I spoke about how coming-of-age films are "better remembered for the careers they launched rather than their artistic merits." Because the structure of coming-of-age stories is so predictable, we often find ourselves relying on the performers to help us through a story we could tell in our sleep. It's a blessing and a curse for the performers in question, who achieve immortality through a given role but at the cost that they can never escape being associated with it.Like Phil Davis from Quadrophenia before her, it's fair to say that Missy Peregrym has yet to shake off the mantle associated with Stick It. Part of this could be attributed to her superficial resemblance to other actresses: from a distance you could easily mistake her for Kristen Stewart, and her toothy smile is very similar to that of Hillary Swank. In any case, Peregrym's lack of subsequent success is wholly unfair; she is a highly charismatic performer, with attitude, mischief and believability to spare.Peregrym is helped in this regard by the writing, which is an improvement on Bendinger's previous work. In Bring It On, all of the female characters had a bitchy quality, and it was sometimes difficult to know whether said bitchiness was a satire of cheerleading or a lazy representation of it. While Stick It has its fair share of cattiness and name-calling, the women are much more varied in their make-up and motivations.Writing convincing, three-dimensional female characters is one of the hardest things to do in fiction. Because men (or more specifically white, straight, English-speaking men) have long been the standard foundation for any given character, the obvious pitfall is to write women as 'not men', defining them entirely in terms of their relationship to men rather than treating them as people in their own right. This is a trap that male writers often fall into, but women can often be just as guilty.This trap can partially be avoided by writing women as 'people who just happen to be female' - in other words, to ignore or dilute any aspects of their character which involve their gender or sexuality. But while this is preferable to writing women as 'not men', ultimately it is not enough to make them completely believable. Women, like men, are constantly interacting with the culture around them, and their identity is partially defined by a reaction to gender and social expectations of their culture. In other words, you have to reference their womanhood even if only to challenge the expectations of how a woman should behave or be written.What is so refeshing about Stick It is that is a film driven primarily by women which deals with their relationships to social standards without preaching or whinging. Even though its main character has a tendency to mope or run from her problems, it treats her like a complex, difficult human being rather than a trope for men to shape at will. Jeff Bridges may be the main big-name star but he's on screen for a relatively short amount of time, and even then he doesn't play as active a role as you might expect.People often talk about women in film in terms of empowerment - the writers or directors getting women to do things that are either not normally associated with women or which they have been traditionally denied by men. A lot of the time this is presented in a clunky or confused way, such as the Bride in Kill Bill: it may be a woman doing all the fighting, but she's still fulfilling male fantasies about powerful women as much as being a strong, independent lady.Stick It succeeds because it doesn't try to shove any message about women down our throats. It gets across a message about the absurdity and hypocrisy of professional gymnastics just as effectively as Smile did for the world of beauty pageants. But throughout its running time it is more interested in allowing women to speak for themselves and demonstrate their talents than it is about using them to make a point. In short, it's empowering because it doesn't constantly shout about empowerment.Purely as a piece of physical spectacle, Stick It is pretty remarkable. Most of the main cast had little or no experience of professional gymastics, and yet they vault, pirouette and twist like they had been rehearsing for the Olympics all their lives. Bendinger's visual style is less conventional than Bring It On's, relying much less on slow-motion or montage than most sports films. Even when it comes close to anything resembling a training montage, the film confounds our expectations by focussing on the painful failures of the characters rather than building up to any one success.Stick It has a welcomely rough and funky edge to it, which at least makes it appear less conventional than similar coming-of-age stories. The film is shot by Daryn Okada, whose work is generally more plastic and mainstream: in amongst the very fine Mean Girls, he also lensed Lake Placid and American Reunion. The soundtrack compliments this vibe, ditching classical accompaniments usually associated with floor routines in favour of Missy Elliott, Green Day and Blink-182.For the most part, Stick It is a film that refuses to play by the rules and more often than not pleasantly surprises us. But it does have some sequences where it comes up short, settling for convention when just a small step further would have made it truly great. While most of the character development is well-played, the film loses its step when one of the gymnasts gets a boyfriend; while it makes sense in terms of her character arc, the relationship isn't written as well as the rest of her character.Likewise, the relationship between the lead character and her mother is underdeveloped. Many of the parents in this film are pushy stereotypes, reduced to unintentionally belittling their children and providing some rather forced comic relief. Ultimately it is not their story, and including them mainly for comic purposes is rather an underwhelming or cheap trick. This doesn't detail the drama, but it is a distraction.Stick It is a hugely underrated slice of comedy-drama with some of the best-written female characters that the sports genre has to offer. Missy Peregrym shines in the lead role, with Jessica Bendinger maturing as a writer and proving that she has quite a bit to offer as a director too. While not quite groundbreaking enough to be considered great, it is a great deal more inspiring and surprising than many sports films you'll find, and comes with a very hearty recommendation.