Monday, November 30, 2009

Sugar and Spice (2001)

Directed by Francine McDougall
Starring Mena Suvari, Marley Shelton, Melissa George, Rachel Blanchard
Rated PG-13

"Then, there's Hannah Wald. She's this uber-Christian, doesn't really say much. In fact, if she wasn't kinda pretty, you'd say ''Hey, who's the 'tard?'"

Everybody loves cheerleaders, especially cheerleaders gone bad. Sugar & Spice exploits this fact to the fullest, presenting us with a squad of mouth-watering, candy-colored, high school cheer-girls with a Cuckoo's Nest of dysfunctions who decide that perhaps robbing banks is the simplest way to financial independence. The film was written and directed by women (Mandy Nelson and Francine McDougall, respectively), and, much like the original Slumber Party Massacre, it walks that fine line between winking femme-powered satire and male sexual fantasy. Sure, sly statements are being made about a women's role in society and adolescent girls' inhumanity to other adolescent girls, but it's also 81 minutes' worth of hot chicks in cheerleader outfits robbing banks. So it works either way. Sugar and Spice was not a huge hit during its initial 2001 release, possibly because the PG rating threw off the sort of sleaze-beasts that gravitate towards movies about desperado cheerleaders. A pity. I could have gone for three or four sequels, ala the sadly less criminal-minded cheerleader series Bring It On.

As our tangled saga opens, Lisa (Marla Sokoloff, Dude Where's My Car?) is being interrogated by a couple cops. Clearly, some crazy shit has gone down. She's been on the 'B' squad for years, so she's pretty happy to spill the beans about Lincoln High's cheerleader bitches. She describes them all in detail for the cops. Diane Weston (Marley Shelton, Planet Terror) is the captain of the squad, which makes sense, since she's the cheerleader-iest of the bunch. Perpetually sunny and upbeat, Diane's the kind of girl most other girls fantasize about murdering on a daily basis. Then there's Hannah (Rachel Blanchard, Clueless the TV series) the lunk-headed Jesus freak, Cleo (Aussie b-movie goddess Melissa George), a tightly-wound manic-depressive obsessed with Conan O'Brien, Kansas (Mena Suvari), the flame-haired, trucker-tongued rebel-girl) and Lucy (Sara Marsh), an obsessive-compulsive neat-freak. Just your average gang of super-hot weirdo high school chicks.

Flashback to simpler times. It's a new year at Lincoln High, time for a pep rally. First, the creaky old principal gives an inappropriate speech ("If you experience milky seepage, let someone know!"), and then the cheerleading squad does a routine set to Gary Glitter's Rock n' Roll Part 2. It's all an elaborate build-up to the introduction of Lincoln High's newest star quarterback, Jack Bartlett (James Marsden, Sex Drive). Jack barely makes it onto the gym floor before Diane mows him down with her reckless somersaulting. It's love as first physical assault. And so a little ditty, if you will, about Jack and Diane begins.

At first, things seem to go pretty well for our star couple. Everybody at school (well, except for Lisa) loves them, and they're shoo-ins for homecoming king and queen. But when they announce to their parents on the night of the dance that Diane is pregnant, things start spiraling downward. Their parents throw them out, forcing the couple to rent a seedy apartment and get after-school jobs. Jack scores a sweet gig at the video store, while Diane gets hired as a clerk at their local grocery store's bank. Life rolls on, but being young and poor ain't easy, even for the homecoming king and queen. Jack and Diane soon find themselves worn down and still broke. One fateful night, the other cheerleaders drop by to lift Diane's spirits. They pop in one of their favorite films, Point Break, wherein surfer dude Keanu Reeves wears a Nixon mask and robs a bank. Suddenly, it all becomes clear to Diane. She works at a bank. Why not get her friends to help her rob it, and then divvy up the money? Financial problems solved!

In order to successfully pull off their heist, the girls watch Heat, Reservoir Dogs, Dog Day Afternoon, and...umm...The Apple Dumpling Gang (Hannah's only allowed to watch G-Rated movies) to come up with a solid plan. Seems valid. And then Hannah and Kansas get into a hair-pulling girlfight while waiting for Diane at the doctor's office. So that was good.

Diane finds out she's having twins. She is also unsure that watching movies is going to make them good bank robbers, so she wants to drop their crazy scheme. Kansas thinks they might have a better chance if they get advice from real criminals, so she visits her mom (Sean Young) in jail. Mom shot a guy at some point. Mom agrees, and gets all her friends on the inside to offer up advice, as well. The girls make daily visits to the prison to pick up tips.

Obviously, you need some guns to pull off a caper, so next they visit a greasy bug killer named "The Terminator" (W Earl Brown, who played Meat Loaf in the 2000 TV Movie Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back) to buy some illegal firearms. They do not have the necessary scratch to purchase said weapons, but he makes a deal with them: he'll give them the guns if they allow his mousy daughter Fern (adorable Alexandra Holden, under a layer of grease and grime) to join the cheerleading squad. Why not?

Now that they're armed, the girls try a few practice robberies, including a pretty sweet lunch lady heist. And then they take time out for their midwinter pep rally. They are still cheerleaders, after all.

Jack sells his car to buy Diane a Christmas present, so the girls are forced to use the Terminator's work van for the bank robbery. Fern acts as the getaway driver, which is no easy feat, since the van has no breaks.

The girls all wear matching outfits - American flag dresses and rubber girly-masks. Lucy - who quit because she got a scholarship to Harvard - comes to her senses and joins back up with the gang, wearing a Nixon mask and a suit.

The cheerleader-bankrobbers hit the grocery store and execute their plan. Things are going pretty good, but Lisa, who happened to be in the store at the time, notices that the girls are doing cheerleader moves to knock out the cameras.

And then some crazy fucker with a knife tries to thwart them, so they shoot him. Or at least they shoot some boxes of Cheerios. Shots are fired, at any rate. Also, Diane vomits into her bag of money. Otherwise, it's flawless.

Later on, while the girls are counting their stolen loot in their underwaer, they watch news reports about the robbery. Lisa is interviewed, but she sounds insane, so they drag her away. The reporter says, "If you haven't heard, five pregnant Betties robbed the bank today". You never hear cool shit like that on the news. The story becomes a national obsession. Kurt Loder even does a report on it. The cops finally follow up on Lisa's rantings, and the girls start to panic.

Word gets around, and the girls become the most feared/loathed students in the school. They finally have a face-off with Lisa and the B-squad for cheerleader dominance. Said face-off ends with the FBI arrested our heroines. So I guess they lost.

And then they have the best criminal line-up photo ever.

So, what happens? Do they all end up in prison?

No. It's a cheerleader movie, man. Cheeleader movies all have happy endings.

Essentially a neon-colored black comedy - and what high school experience isn't, really? - Sugar & Spice manages to thoroughly entertain without any of the usual teen movie trappings: there's no shower scenes, no nerds being tortured, no mad slashers in the woods, not even an F-bomb. There is only the simple pleasure of watching pretty girls do cool/weird stuff. This not the easiest trick to pull off, but occasionally - see also Mean Girls, Jawbreaker, and Josie and the Pussycats - it works perfectly. I guess it also helps that you can find topless pix of most of the cheerleaders on the internet right after you finish watching it.

All the main cast members went on to do higher-profile work, with the sole exception of Sara Marsh, who has yet to make another movie. Perhaps she really did go to Harvard. Director McDougall went to direct a kid's television show called "Imagination Movers". I have never heard of it, but then I don't have children. If you do, you probably know every episode by heart. Sugar and Spice is highly recommended to anyone who loves cheerleaders. Or hates them. Or loves them but also hates them. And I think that covers everybody.

- Ken McIntyre

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