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Stick It Celebrates the Brutal Beauty of Gymnastics

Photo: Peter Iovino/Buena Vista/Kobal/Shutterstock

When I was in middle school, two movies dominated my brain: Twilight and Stick It, both of which I had digital copies of on my iPod. They were the only two movies on the device, and I’d watch them over and over when I was supposed to be doing homework. The former needs no introduction, but Stick It, the 2006 teen gymnastics movie, doesn’t have much of a cultural footprint. But when Simone Biles, the most decorated female gymnast of all time, pulled out of several Olympic events, I immediately thought of Stick It. Not only is it one of the few mainstream movies about gymnastics, but it tackles part of what Biles was dealing with: the intense mental toll the sport can take. It’s a movie about a naturally gifted gymnast who rebels against the rigidity and harshness of a sport they love that often doesn’t love them back.

Texas teen Haley (Missy Peregrym) does BMX tricks in abandoned pools, hangs out with boys, and wears baggy hoodies and men’s jeans. When she gets arrested for property damage, the judge gives her a unique sentence specifically designed to make Haley squirm: elite-gymnastics training. Before she started dressing like Jesse Pinkman, Haley was one of the highest-ranked gymnasts in the country — until she walked out right before the final event at a major championship, rendering her an enemy in the eyes of her fellow gymnasts. But it’s either gymnastics or juvie (if only all teens charged with crimes were given such an option), so she chooses the literal blood, sweat, and tears of training with has-been coach Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges as a classic strict coach with a heart of gold).

Haley has a lot of complaints about the sport of gymnastics. It hurts her body in 100 different ways. The judging is too subjective. The little dance moves are embarrassing. But her biggest gripe is the way the sport makes parents and adults disregard what’s best for the teens’ mental and physical health. Haley, as it is revealed halfway through the film, quit in the middle of the big championship because she found out, right before her final routine, that her mom was sleeping with her coach, which led to her parents’ divorce. Haley witnesses plenty of other shitty parenting from the overbearing moms at Vickerman’s gym. She doesn’t actually hate the act of gymnastics after all — she just hates what it does to people.

The crescendo of Stick It comes toward the end when Haley and her teammates are at a national championship. When Haley’s teammate pulls off what appears to be a perfect vault routine but still receives a deduction from the judges — because her bra strap was showing — Haley decides she’s had enough. She doesn’t want to let the rigidity of the sport overtake her love for it, so she does an exaggerated reveal of her own bra strap mid-routine. What follows is a slew of other gymnasts doing the same, forgoing a routine to let the wronged gymnast win. Throughout the rest of the competition, the gymnasts come together to choose their own winners, instead of having the sport’s Establishment do so. It’s the gymnastics equivalent of worker solidarity.

It would be a disservice to Stick It, though, to think of it as worthy only for its acrobatic rebellion. It’s also funny, charming, and inventive. A spiritual cousin to cheerleading classic Bring It On, that movie’s screenwriter, Jessica Bendinger, also wrote and directed Stick It. (Bendinger belongs to a class of female writers and directors from a certain era in which their talent and success somehow didn’t translate into opportunities to make more movies; she hasn’t made another film since Stick It.)

As a filmmaker, Bendinger leans into the details. When Haley’s BMX friends visit, they take the gymnasts to the mall, where they act like cult-escapees who have never seen such abundance — performing acrobatics in department-store prom dresses, pouring jelly beans from a candy dispenser directly into their mouths. In one competition scene, set to the Electric Six song “Dance Commander,” the gymnasts’ tricks during each event are layered over each other like a collage or mirrored like a kaleidoscope. Haley’s fellow gymnast Wei Wei (Nikki SooHoo) engages in her own rebellion by performing a hip-hop beam routine to K7’s “Come Baby Come,” executing a headspin and the worm on the slender apparatus. It makes you wonder what the sport could be, and whom it could make space for, if the rules weren’t so narrow.

The soundtrack (also on my middle-school iPod) is such an integral part of the film that it can feel, in the best way, like a collection of gymnastics-themed music videos. In fact, the music video for Missy Elliott’s “We Run This,” also featured in Stick It, incorporates clips and actors from the movie as well as Dominique Dawes, the first Black woman to win a gold medal in Olympic gymnastics.

The film has the energy of an independent movie, with a cast that features no big names, save for Bridges, who is enjoyably out of his element in tracksuits and sport polos. Bendinger said in a recent interview that she cast Bridges based on a suggestion from her psychic. The best lines come from Haley’s nemesis turned friend, Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), who is hilariously bitchy and dumb, like when she confuses a GED and a DUI or when she tells Vickerman not to attempt a backflip because he’ll have a “cardiovasectomy.” When Haley tells her to stop being nasty, Joanne delivers the truly iconic line “It’s not called gym-nice-stics.”

Gymnastics is a beautiful and brutal sport. It demands so much of the athletes’ bodies, while also asking the women to look pretty and graceful. Its rules don’t leave much room for innovation or change. Reflecting on the Great Bra-Strap Rebellion at the end of the film, Haley realizes that she’s in the sport for herself and not anyone else: “I couldn’t look back and think it was about the judges or the parents or the coaches at all. It was about us. And for us.” After withdrawing from most of her events, and taking the week off to emotionally and physically recover, Biles returned to the Olympics to win the bronze medal, a feat as great as anything else she has done. “I didn’t really care about the outcome,” Biles said. “I was so happy that I made the routine and that I got to compete one more time.”

Stick It Celebrates the Brutal Beauty of Gymnastics