“So that’s why I came forward. I mean, even the kids on the short bus can see all the evidence points toward Diane and the ‘A’ Squad.”
Why is it that I get stuck reviewing all the cheerleader movies? Hmm, why indeed…
“Little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids doin’ the best they can.” While that lyric by John Mellencamp is never heard in Sugar and Spice, you can be certain that it was on the minds of screenwriter Mandy Nelson and director Francine McDougall (both making their feature film debuts). Jack (James Mardsen, Disturbing Behavior, The X-Men) is a football star transferring to Lincoln High. Diane (Marley Shelton, Grand Canyon, Never Been Kissed) is the captain of the cheerleading team. For the two kids, it’s love at first sight. By the time the homecoming dance rolls around, Diane is pregnant and the two are married. The two naïve teenagers have no sense of what it’s like to be out in the real world. Fending for themselves, paying rent, working minimum wage job, AND keeping up with the “rigors” of high school life proves to be too much for them. Diane wants to provide a good life for her baby (or rather, babies — it’s later revealed that she is having twins). One night while watching Point Break with the rest of her cheerleading squad — Cleo (Melissa George), Kansas (Mena Suvari), Hannah (Rachel Blanchard), and Lucy (Sara Marsh) — Diane concocts a scheme: they’ll rob the supermarket bank branch where she works. The five plan the robbery with the help of Kansas’ mother (played by Sean Young), who is in prison for killing her husband. Not unlike the Ex-Presidents of Point Break, they don rubber masks for the robbery. Mayhem ensues…
Sugar and Spice has a long and sordid history, especially for a low budget teen movie. It was filmed in 1999, and yet was not released until early 2001. Why? Circumstantial evidence would point toward the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School and the charged media environment it created. Suddenly, a bitterly satirical movie about teenaged criminals was a liability to a film studio. Never mind that one of its stars, Mena Suvari, was big in the teen market after American Pie and earned critical attention late in 1999 for American Beauty. They even prolonged its release after James Mardsen lit up the screen (literally) as Cyclops in The X-Men. Nope, it was summarily dumped to theaters in January 2001 with little or no media attention, and darned if I remember seeing a single trailer or TV ad for it (but hey, I don’t suppose it would be the sort of movie advertised during Star Trek: Voyager or The Simpsons, about the only shows I watch). It went from being an R-rated black comedy to a sweetly ironic PG-13. If that’s for good or ill can’t be judged, because the only vestiges we get of that more satirical version are a few extended scenes among the extras. The theatrical version, however, left me satisfied.
Sugar and Spice plays like a cross between Bring It On and The Usual Suspects. I refer to the latter because of the heist and because of the movie’s structure. It is told in flashback by Lisa (Marla Sokoloff, Dude, Where’s My Car?), recounting the story to police detectives. She’s on the “B” squad of the cheerleading team; she insists she’s better than the other girls, but her performance anxiety prevents her from demonstrating that. She is in the supermarket when the robbery takes place, and is observant enough to see through the disguises. One would presume she is ratting out the girls because of her jealousy, but the twist payoff makes the clichéd flashback structure work nicely. I refer to Bring It On, beyond the obvious cheerleading parallel, because Sugar and Spice separates itself from other teenaged crime movies (namely, Drop Dead Gorgeous and Jawbreaker, a movie I also enjoyed) because it is good-natured instead of mean-spirited. The only cruelty in the movie is the sarcastic tone Lisa employs in her narration of the flashbacks. In his review, Roger Ebert compared her to Bette Midler, and while I’d never insult anyone by comparing them to the “Divine” Miss M, there is a certain resemblance in the dour scowl.
Sometimes, you have to give a movie credit for being exactly what it set out to be. That doesn’t necessarily make it a great movie, but it at least exempts it from certain forms of critical abuse. I’d hold my love of Renny Harlin action movies up as an example. Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea may not be shining paragons of filmmaking excellence, but they are exciting and contain great action scenes — and that’s exactly what they aspire to be. Sugar and Spice at one point may have wanted to be a biting satire (and at some turns, it seems like it flinches and holds back from being that), but as it stands it’s a fantasy about frivolous girls who rob a bank. It wants to be nothing more, and it’s certainly nothing less.
New Line’s DVD presentation is what you’d expect from them — great audio and video, reasonable extras. The film can be viewing in either 2.35:1 anamorphic or open matte full-frame, selectable from the main menu. Watch the 2.35:1 image, please, because, odd for a comedy, it makes nice use of the widescreen composition. The image is crystal clear, with natural flesh tones, deep blacks, colors that don’t bleed, and minimal shimmering or edge enhancement. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, and is an excellent presentation for a comedy. The rear channels are used mostly for the rousing soundtrack, while dialogue is spatially integrated and always clear.
This isn’t a Platinum Edition disc, so the extras are somewhat limited. There’s a set of four deleted scenes, cast and crew bios, a theatrical trailer, and DVD-ROM content. The deleted scenes are mostly extended versions of what you see in the film, and show the harder edge that the movie might have had. The theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1. The DVD-ROM features give you the screenplay to the film and its original website. As a final note, the menus are nicely designed — animated, so they’re not boring, but not busy and protracted, so they’re not annoying.
All’s not hearts and flowers. I had quite a bit of fun with Sugar and Spice, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. Remember when I said it flinches and holds back? That bothered me a bit. There were plenty of opportunities for social satire that went by without action. The girls base their robbery (or try to, at least) on a series of movies — Dog Day Afternoon, Point Break, Heat, Reservoir Dogs. Why no commentary on movies influencing teenaged behavior and violence? The look at high school culture and cliques is superficial at best, though admittedly its goal is not the same as Election or other films with social observation as their ambition. The actresses are all capable, and they’re fun to watch, but the characters are played so broadly that it is difficult to find them believable.
My wife watched Sugar and Spice with me, and said it was bad and cheesy. Cheesy I’ll agree with, but cheesy isn’t always bad. I went along with it, and found it to be rather fun and diverting.
I was born during the Ford administration. I remember record players. As a kid I watched The A-Team. I saw E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in its original theatrical run. I’m out of the demographic for these teen movies, yet for some reason I gravitate toward them, or they gravitate toward me, and I must say that a certain part of me likes them and enjoys their sense of humor. Teen comedies are a dime a dozen these days; low budgets and strong box office returns make them quite lucrative for the studios. Few of them have the humor and enjoyability of Sugar and Spice, especially for post-adolescent viewers. If you like crime comedies, you could do far worse than to give 80 minutes of your life to this fun little flick. At $24.98, it might be a little overpriced for a blind purchase, so a rental would be in order for those of you would enjoy such a movie.
I may have been a little dismissive with the actresses. All of them are a blast to watch, but especially fun is Melissa George as Cleo. Her introduction in the movie: “Number one: not a real C cup. I’ve been in the locker room. And number two: she has to see the school shrink — she’s completely obsessed with Conan O’Brien.” For a teen movie it’s such an odd choice. I mean, he’s funny and all, but so geeky that it’s hard to believe that any teen girl would have a crush on him. Her résumé has a few interesting notes on it. She is in David Lynch’s yet to be released film, Mulholland Drive. She played Terence Stamp’s murdered daughter in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. And, she was in Dark City, one of my favorite sci-fi flicks. She played the prostitute who took Rufus Sewell back to her apartment, and it’s a chance to see her topless (for those of you, you know, who are in to that sort of thing).
Reviewing what I’ve written, I notice that I say Sugar and Spice is funny, but I don’t really give many reasons to think that. I love throwaway humor, the weird little asides that maybe weren’t what the marketing schlubs thought would people would laugh at when they did test screenings, but that crack me up. One of the best is the school mascot, a geeky guy wearing a giant Abe Lincoln head. Toward the beginning of flick, the mascot pantomimes along as the incredibly old principal gives a speech to a school assembly. The talk revolves around letting someone know if bad things happen — someone offers to sell you drugs, someone is going to harm someone…and then he goes off on this tangent about it stinging when you pee. Obviously, that’s what supposed to make you laugh, but even funnier is the mascot in the background, who just shrugs his shoulders like he doesn’t know how you’re supposed to mime that. Sublime. What also gets me is the parodies of action movie clichés, especially the slo-mo side by side walk…you know the one that I’m talking about, the one that Sam Peckinpah invented but that Quentin Tarantino gets credited with for Reservoir Dogs. They do this two or three times, but each time in different ways so it doesn’t seem like the same gag every time.
Since these girls look better in cheerleader outfits than I would, they are free to go. Just stay away from any other supermarket bank branches.