By Lisa Rodgers (Memphis, TN)
For those of you that have not yet seen this movie, I would say break out the Firestick and stream it yesterday. The bare bones summary is: The former high school gymnast, fresh from the broken- home, Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) walked out of the Worlds gymnastics tournament two years previous and has been basically hanging out with her two ne’er do well guy friends, doing BMX tricks at residential construction sites, and getting into teenage mayhem and scrapes with the law. Needless to say, she is very unpopular in the gymnastics world. When she finally lands in juvenile court after accidentally causing some property damage, she is sentenced to the elite Vickerman Gymnastics Academy (VGA), instead of military school and against her wishes.
Coach Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges) takes Haley on as his charge. Problem is, he is juggling his own issues that most of us acquire in some form or another by the time we are his age. Let’s just say, he has been around the block a time or two himself in the gymnastics world, and is a wee bit short on patience and he’s gotta make payroll, okay? He also has a bad reputation for pushing his gymnasts to injury, so he is attempting to conform to a safer and gentler presentation. He also is not above telling the moms a white lie or two about their offspring’s Olympic potential. At first, Haley wants no part of training with him or his elites. He has a real challenge on his hands, as does she. But somehow through it all Burt, Haley, and some other key gymnasts end up competing at Nationals. The movie covers the literal bumps and bruises along the way and is a much more renewing and transforming tale than most reviewers make it out to be.
I am a mother with two teenage children; both athletes, neither gymnasts. I have only recently watched “Stick It” after my husband and I went on a Jeff Bridges movie kick. You see, after spending the last 19 years rearing kids, getting to practices and games, doing turnarounds with the washing machine and dirty uniforms needed again the next day, I have missed many a movie when they first came out. I have only recently started catching up on what I have missed from some of my actors and themes (love any kind of sports or competition movie). So… I have somehow wandered onto Stick It and now I am sort of stuck on it. Here’s why…
First of all, I had a little bit of that rebellious attitude that Haley Graham has when I was growing up and I did not have nearly the reasons she has. To be honest, I am a little suspicious of teenagers that don’t seem to have just a little bit of angst or attitude. After all, we all have to learn to think for ourselves at some point and just when we should respect or question authority. It is part of the balancing act of life, irony intended. It is also how great leaders are born.
Burt Vickerman is reminiscent of the old-school parents, coaches, and authority figures of my own youth. My own children have also had coaches and head-masters that echo him, thank God. Jeff Bridges plays him just like someone who has daughters himself (he does). Even though he is a flawed and complicated personality, he earned my respect almost immediately. He utters what could have been uttered almost verbatim from my own father “…You don’t have to like it here, or like me, but you will respect it.” He is no-nonsense, runs a pretty tight ship, believes in structure… you know… all those truisms you hated as a teenager but embrace as a parent. He also has his work cut out for him with Haley and it will take more than pushing her off the balance beam to help her come around…
What speaks to me about this movie are several things. First and foremost, Haley breaks my heart, because she is so very strong and wounded at the same time; not quite broken but dangerously close. Her divorced father has custody of her. He really is not that bad, but rather seems worn out with it all and just hands her off to Vickerman to tame. The mother is another story all together. She is toxic, selfish, and has pretty much abandoned Haley. I wish I could say mothers don’t exist like her, but they do and I know some much like her, I am sorry to say. It is the burden that Haley carries about her mother that is much of the crux of the movie. Haley, like Burt, is complicated. She is intelligent, strong-willed, and best of all, she is fearless. She refuses to conform, and would rather not compete at all if it means she has to perform tired safe tricks.
This is a good point to throw in another central character, Joanne Charis. Haley has competed with her under a former coach. Joanne is also pushed by her relentless mother to be the perfect gymnast, poised for Olympic greatness. Joanne is the antithesis of Haley. She is a rule-follower and craves approval from her both her mother and coach, but at a cost. She is the classic “mean girl” and holds Haley’s failures over her constantly. She is threatened by Haley and resents any attention Vickerman pays her. I have a daughter; she is a cheerleader and basketball athlete. I have known several Joannes and even more mothers like hers.
At the heart of the movie are really three dynamics; Haley and Vickerman, Vickerman and his team, and the female gymnasts in total. Each one is intertwined with the other and it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. However, it is fair to say that the catalysts are Haley and Burt in equal measures. So often, even the most inspiring sports movies are so much about how the coach “coaches” the team and brings them to victory. With this film, it is more a perfect storm of less- than perfect circumstances and dealt cards that lead to a very satisfying outcome in my opinion.
There is little gristle to this film. After all, attention spans are short and it is obvious to me that Bendinger is sneaking in jewels like parents sneak vegetables into the spaghetti sauce. In a diner scene, after he has eaten in front of her and refused to let her have his leftovers, Vickerman dangles a competition pot in front of Haley to pay her court-ordered restitution in a last ditch attempt to get her to train and fall back in love with the sport. When that psychology fails, he decides on the 2 x 4 theology and lets her run the five miles back to the camp just “to think things over” and tells her basically if she is going to live there, she must compete. When she implores him in a moment of heartbreaking vulnerability that she has nowhere else to go, he replies, “Yeah, I know.” Awe-inspiring tough love is not for sissies.
Renewal and conviction are not all solely doled out on Haley, however, she can give as good as she can get. She almost immediately calls Vickerman on the line of BS he is feeding the mothers about their “Olympic hopefuls”, as she well should. She doesn’t harp on it with him, but certainly brings it to his attention when she feels the need to. Her other bone of contention with him is that she is not going to bend to convention, do safe boring routines, go along to get along, etc. This is her strength, her ire, her grit, and what makes her a great character. This key point is really the touchstone of the two protagonists and is the heart of the film. Vickerman himself has a history of more than a gentle tangle with gymnastics. He himself was a promising athlete with a career cut short by a broken back and a comeback that was not possible. This along with the reputation of injured athletes all suggest a time, he too, liked to push it.
When he decides to try to follow the rules of conformity and make safety and “sticking” the landing the most important piece of the routine, he becomes complacent and unfulfilled as a coach. So it’s the classic “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t”. It is also evident that he doesn’t spend much time contemplating on all of this, maybe because he is too busy on trying to get more students and fat tuition payments, or more likely he would rather not think about it…like most of us that are functioning below our potential. Both Burt and Haley are at odds with what they love most. In a telling scene at the first competition, Burt has called Haley out on “coaching” Wai-Wai and Mina to perform tricks they can’t land well, even though their execution is good. That is his failing, and he knows it even if he won’t admit it. Joanne, always longing for approval, does a very conventional routine with a decent landing. He gives her the perfunctory gymnastic coach hug and then pushes her off because deep-down the routines he has preached and taught makes him sick.
The real turning point of the film is when Haley discovers that her Dad has been paying Vickerman a lot of money to coach her. This little jewel is dropped by her own mother during this same meet. It is a toss-up which mother is worse in the movie, but I think Haley’s has even Phyllis Charis beat. By this point, Burt and Haley have made some begrudged progress. He has given her permission to “throw hard tricks” and she has swallowed her pride and asked for his help to control her landings. He knows she is special and she realizes there is more to him than she originally thought. Haley has begun to make new friendships with Wai-Wai and Mina and even tolerate Joanne. The team is beginning to meld and become more than individual competitors. The climax of this scene is heartbreaking. Haley is devastated by her mother’s cruelty and inhumane sense of timing. After her bar routine, Haley again abandons the meet. It is obvious to everyone that she is upset, but why?
As Burt is trying his best to redirect her to continue, she puts the hammer down and good. She lets him know she knows about the payments from her father, and also why she walked out on the World’s tournament. The latter is the same reason that her parents are divorced now. It is obvious Haley is funneling her rage and hurt that she has tried to swallow onto Vickerman, mostly for things he had nothing to do with and had no knowledge of. In a rare moment of humility and compassion, he takes it all without a word except to tell her he is sorry. It is the missing piece to the puzzle, but Vickerman does not try to turn anything to his advantage. Rather, he implores the court to let up on Haley and let her make up her own mind. But Haley is starting to transform too. Even though she leaves the meet, she almost immediately regrets it. More than anything, her burden has been lifted by just admitting what happened and how it hurt her. After learning that Vickerman has taken care of her court restitution, she returns to VGA with her own form of apology to Burt.
The final parts of the movie are about conviction, redemption, and empowerment. After a little hilarious scare on the trampoline, Burt seems to have an even bigger “come to Jesus moment”. He confesses to pretty much ALL the moms and his inner core of elites that he has been doing a little bit of, well, lying about their Olympic potential. Haley takes note of this. He has been doing a little soul-searching after all, it would seem. It seems he is also trying to encourage Joanne’s witch mother to let her go to the prom with Haley’s friend, Poot (what a name, right?) In another scene of straight up honesty and humility, he confides in Haley that he basically feels blessed that he has four girls going to Nationals, as it has never happened before. It’s a feel good moment for sure.
At Nationals, Haley attempts to make amends with her former teammate, Tricia. Also, in a twist, Haley inspires many of the other gymnasts to challenge the rigid and often ridiculous deductions for minor infractions. In a nutshell, many take one for the team, or in this case, for the one special competitor they feel is most deserving. My inner rebel loved this and I thought it was a unique and brave angle to present. This is following Mina’s vault routine that is flawless save for a bra strap that popped out. What we learn during this scene is that the gymnastics arena, like many other sports, is a tight-knit and political clan. The judges are being overly harsh on Vickerman’s athletes to get at him.
For creative purposes, I realize that this is presented with broad strokes in the movie. However, having been involved in varsity sports for a long time, this type of thing really does happen with teams and especially with coaches to some degree. Especially the good ones. I have read a few reviews that criticize the movie for presenting athletes that question authority and for a coach that allows it. My thoughts on this are that this angle keeps the movie from being like all the others, and that sometimes, just sometimes authority needs to be challenged. Sometimes you have to take a stand for what you believe. Think of women’s suffrage and civil rights…they all started somewhere and became something bigger than just the people involved. Once again, we are seeing humility and empowerment on display I think much more than disrespect.
Before Haley’s big routine, the one we know she absolutely will not bail or scratch on, is the penultimate scene that the whole movie has been leading to. We are privy to Haley’s nervous thoughts about what everyone wishes for when it is all on the line, as it is for her at that moment. She has turned her life around and transformed herself, with help. What she is about to do matters to her, and she also feels the desire for it to matter to someone else. For as strong as Haley is, she still needs support, don’t we all? We only hear her thoughts, but her face is telling the story. Likewise, Jeff Bridges is, of course, a powerhouse. He maintained a pretty dignified and restrained performance throughout the movie. All I can say, is when the camera pans to his face with Haley’s voiceover, he has about 5 seconds to silently portray a man convicted of what he should do next… and then does it. I realize this is a teen movie, but if that one scene doesn’t give you chills, something is seriously wrong with you.
In the end, Haley of course hits it out of the park with her routine. She, along with her coach and teammates, are at peace with her performance. Tricia comes around and forgives Haley, along with acknowledging her superior routine. Both Haley and Burt have come a long way in a short time and have helped each and are the better for it. Both have a renewed love for their sport and profession. Haley now has college offers on the table and wonderful possibilities on the horizon; something Burt alluded to her early on but wisely did not beat her over the head with. Haley has inspired her teammates to take risks and strive to excellence, and not just be “good enough”. It is a shame that the mothers were not portrayed in a better light, but I respect the way Jessica Bendinger told her story. Great movie!!