By Chloe Angyal
So, you’ve spent the last two weeks watching Olympic gymnastics coverage, and now, it’s all dried up. You’ve just realized that you’re going to have to wait four more years until you can watch a bunch of freakishly flexible, jaw-droppingly powerful teenagers flip and tumble while wearing leotards that look like a truck full of diamantes veered off the road and crashed into a sparkly lycra factory (on the plus side, it’ll be another four years before you’ll next be reminded that glitter hairspray is thing that exists in the world). Never fear, Stick It is here. It’s not London 2012, but it is gymnastics. And unlike London 2012, it has Nastia Liukin in it.
Hailey (Missy Peregrym) is a former champion gymnast who has quit gym and is now a petty juvenile criminal. Given the choice between sending her to the Texas Military Academy and sending her to an elite gym where girls are more likely to end up in hospital than on national teams, her parents choose the latter. Hailey goes to the Vickerman Gymnastics Academy, but she refuses to train. She’s done with gymnastics, she insists: she’s sick of being judged. She mocks the silly cookie-cutter routines that the other gymnasts do, and accuses them of being gymnastics automatons. And they hate her right back: it comes out the Hailey walked out of the World Championships a few years earlier, destroying Team USA’s chance at a gold medal, and she’s now persona non grata in the gymnastics world. Vickerman (Jeff Bridges) gets her to agree to train with him, and compete for prize money so she can pay the restitution and be on her way. In the process, she befriends some of the gymnasts, and gives them small glimpses of what it might be like to have a life outside of gymnastics. When national championships roll around, Hailey and the other gymnasts stage a protest in response to an unfair judging decision. This time, they insist, they get to decide who wins. By the end, Hailey has made peace with gymnastics and is even considering competing for a collegiate team.
As a former gymnast (level six state beam and floor champion, baby!), there are parts of this movie that I really appreciate. I like that it explores the sport’s demands that gymnasts be feminine and pretty and pert even as they’re performing almost superhuman feats of strength. I like that it pokes fun at what spending your teenage years in a gym will do to your social skills and your ability to interact with members of the opposite sex. And I like that it tackles the darker side of gymnastics: the high injury rate (and not just ankles and wrists, we’re talking heads and necks here) and the grim reality that coaches prefer obedient, unquestioning gymnasts who do what they’re told and don’t think too hard about what might go wrong. This particular dynamic can go horribly wrong, and it’s far too common to see coaches accused of exploiting it in a sexually abusive way. I also like that it capitalizes on the remarkable things that gymnasts do with their bodies, without crossing the line into making it about those bodies. This isn’t about girls in leotards, this is about athletes doing really impressive things:
But I say this as a fan of the movie, and of gymnastics: Stick It makes no sense. It’s not so much a sports movie as it is a revenge fantasy movie for anyone who’s ever done gymnastics, who’s ever had two-tenths of a point deducted for waiting just a teeeeny bit too long between a wolf jump and a backflip, or for any other trifling error – or for any parent who’s looked on uncomprehendingly as their kid got an inexplicably low score. As Olympic gymnastics coverage dries up for another four years, it’s the perfect movie for Americans left bruised and disappointed by the real-life vagaries of the sport, like the exclusion of Jordyn Wieber from the all-around final.
There are a couple of other reasons Stick It makes no sense in 2012. One is that it was made when the old scoring system was still in use, when a perfect 10 was the goal. The new scoring system actually remedies some of the things that Hailey complains about. Now, execution accounts for about half of the score, which somewhat mitigates the effects of subjective judging. The other half rewards a higher degree of difficulty, which encourages gymnasts to take risks, and pushes the sport forward. The movie also makes no sense because at the end, the girls haven’t really triumphed. Yes, they’ve controlled the results of the meet, but only by ensuring that one person competes on each event. The point of a competition is that, well, there’s more than one person competing.
The protest at the end of the movie is about Hailey and the other gymnasts wanting to control their own lives. If this is really what they desire, however, they’re in the wrong sport. You don’t get to be in control in gymnastics. Yes, when you get up on the beam or run down the vault strip, it’s all on you. No teammates to screw up passing you the ball, no opposing players to tackle you and stop you from getting where you want to go. But in every other respect, you have no control at all. You literally put your life in your coach’s hands. You cannot determine what score the judges give you. You cannot stop a competitor from getting up and performing better than you. You can, however, choose not to wear glitter hairspray. That part is entirely optional.