Sugar & Spice*
Flirts with Stereotypes, Remains Virtuous
Sugar & Spice (2001) Starring Marley Shelton, Marla Sokoloff, Mena Suvari, James Marsden, Melissa George, Rachel Blanchard, and Alexandra Holden. Directed by Francine McDougall. Written by Mandy Nelson.
- Sugar & Spice puts your average cheerleader movie to shame. ... I was surprised by the PG-13 rating; the movie is so in tune with its under-17 target audience that it's amazing the MPAA didn't slap it with an R.
- —Roger Ebert (1)
Q: What do you get when you cross The Brady Bunch Movie with The Hot Rock?
A: The most enjoyable teen comedy since Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
A perky high school cheerleader (Marley Shelton) gets pregnant and decides to bear her child and marry the father, the school's quarterback played by James Marsden (Disturbing Behavior). Their disapproving parents throw them out on the street. Though they are younger than 18, they somehow find an apartment they can rent, and they find jobs. Their income, however, will not pay their bills. So Shelton persuades her fellow cheerleaders to help her rob a bank.
Comedies about teenagers frequently follow the Amos & Andy path and stereotype youth as stupid (Bill & Ted, Wayne's World, Clueless, etc.). Sugar & Spice comes perilously close to this pitfall, but never quite falls in. Yes, Shelton and Marsden are both rather ditzy, but not all the film's teenagers are. The young woman who narrates this story in flashback (Marla Sokoloff) is bitter and jealous of Shelton, but she is no ditz. In her narration, she tosses off similes that would make Raymond Chandler envious. (Describing the handsome, popular quarterback: "It was like he was a bar of chocolate and the whole school was on the rag: everyone wanted a piece of him.")
While the cheerleaders are sometimes silly, they are competent, and they manage to triumph over every adversity without losing their pluck. They triumph, not because they are lucky, but because they are persistent and confident and they work hard. Perkiness is stereotypical of cheerleaders, yes, but it is also a positive quality these heroines hold. In the film's prologue, our young bank robbers have been caught. Police snap a group mug shot, and the ladies all strike a pose. Even when facing prison, they do not lose their spirit; the system cannot break them.
from left: Marley Shelton, Melissa George, Mena Suvari, Sara Marsh, Rachel Blanchard, and Alexandra Holden.
This empowering attitude surfaces again when, planning their heist, the women discover the guns they have obtained are junk, broken in pieces. Shelton tells her cohorts, "I don't see a problem here. I see a craft project. Get me some glue, tape, and a nail file."
This confidence is justified by talent and competence. At a pep rally, we see these skillful cheerleaders dazzle the crowd with great dancing and impressive acrobatics. In the robbery scene, they give themselves away as cheerleaders by safely executing what witness Sokoloff recognizes as "an illegal dismount."
Sugar & Spice also skirts ageism by giving us older characters who are just as goofy as the teenagers. If the parents of our young lovers are not exactly stupid, they certainly are easily amused, laughing at their own lame jokes they have used a hundred times in the past.
Another common pitfall is to stereotype teenagers as evil (Kids, Village of the Damned, even good films like Menace II Society). In a movie about teenagers robbing a bank, it would have been easy to fall into that rut; but these filmmakers deftly avoid it.
The young bank robbers are driven by virtuous motives. Marley Shelton wants to provide for her baby. The other cheerleaders are driven by loyalty to their friend.
James Marsden and Marla Sokoloff
James Marsden is so wholesome, they can't even tell him about their plan. Marsden is a part-time video store clerk, but he is a full-time sweetheart. In fact, a hilarious sub-plot involves Marla Sokoloff trying to seduce Marsden away from his bride. Sokoloff falls on her face because Marsden is so thrilled by the chance to be a good father and husband, he is oblivious to the charms of our would-be home-wrecker.
Filmmakers often portray popular teenagers as arrogant, self-centered snobs or even as hateful tormentors. They seem to forget that "popular" means "widely liked," and in real life, people are widely liked because they are likeable. While this obvious fact eludes most filmmakers, the people behind Sugar & Spice got it right.
Not all the teenagers here are sweethearts, but neither are the adults. The man who rents the apartment to our young couple is a sleaze-bag trafficking in stolen goods. Cheerleader Mena Suvari (American Pie) has a mother in prison for murder. (Mom has her middle-aged friends advise the youngsters on how to rob the bank.) And another old dude is perfectly willing to illegally sell them the guns they need, and seems ready to commit murder if it serves his interests. In a world of sleaze and bitterness, these teenagers stand out as good people.
Divide and Conquer
The loyalty of the young characters is another aspect I like about this film. Hollywood frequently plays youth off against each other — dividing male against female, popular against unpopular — and urges young audience-members to follow the example and hurt each other. In Spy Kids, a movie aimed at children, the brother and sister protagonists cannot seem to say one word to each other that is not designed to hurt. Sugar & Spice refuses to play that game.
When the popular quarterback takes a job working with unpopular students, there is no hostility among them. He enjoys talking with them, telling them what sex is like (among other topics), while they are dazzled to learn.
When the cheerleaders cannot afford the guns they need, the gun dealer agrees to give them the guns free if they let his daughter (Alexandra Holden) join their cheerleading squad. They first turn up their noses at the awkward hick, but soon they agree to take her under their wing. They bond with her quickly, and they not only allow her to join the squad, they invite her to join the bank robbery as a full partner.
Not all the young characters are loving and supportive. Sokoloff is a loser seething with bitterness and jealousy. Sokoloff is a foil the filmmakers contrast against Shelton. Sokoloff laughs at other's misfortune while Shelton sympathizes. The filmmakers do not ask us to laugh with Sokoloff, but to laugh at her. The filmmakers emphasize that her bitterness is tied to her being a loser. Yet unlike malicious youths in other films, Sokoloff puts no age-limit on her aggression.† She lashes out at teenagers, but she also lashes out at cops and a news crew.
At the very end, there is even hope for Sokoloff. She helps our heroines escape the cops, in return for which, they allow her to join their cheerleading squad, leaving her less reason to feel jealous. This film reaches closure, not with the young villain's defeat and humiliation, but with her redemption and with the heroines' forgiveness of her.
One of our heroines is also anti-social. Tough chick Mena Suvari shows hostility toward people; but she, too, lashes out at people of all ages, and she never takes abuse from anyone. In one scene, she visits her inmate mother. A joke involves Suvari mistakenly thinking her mother has taken a cellmate as a lover. When Suvari explains she is uncomfortable with her mother being a lesbian, the mother responds abusively: "Shut up, you mouthy little
It must be noted, however, the only time Suvari actually hits someone, that person is a teenager.
Not all of these heroines are strong enough to stand up to their parents. Rachel Blanchard is submissive. But the film is not pushing her as a role-model nor pushing submission on young viewers. Quite the opposite. Blanchard's subservience is the butt of humor, including what seems to be the most popular joke in the film: when the cheerleaders study heist films to learn techniques for armed robbery, the others study Dog Day Afternoon, Heat, and Reservoir Dogs. Blanchard studies The Apple Dumpling Gang because her parents only allow G-rated movies.
The film's working title was Sugar & Spice & Semiautomatics. Chickens at New Line Cinema changed it, fearing that emphasizing lawlessness in a teenager movie would draw fire from ageist censors.