Sugar & Spice
Screenplay : Mandy Nelson
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Marley Shelton (Diane Weston), James Marsden (Jack Bartlett), Mena Suvari (Kansas Hill), Marla Sokoloff (Lisa Janusch), Alexandra Holden (Fern Rogers), Rachel Blanchard (Hannah Wold), Sara Marsh (Lucy Whitman), Melissa George (Cleo Miller), Nate Maher (Chris), Jake Hoffman (Ted), W. Earl Brown (The Terminator), Sean Young (Mrs. Hill)
Sugar & Spice is a silly teen satire about a group of cheerleaders who decide to rob a bank in order to help their pregnant captain. There is something about the movie's premise that seems almost too close to the absurdities of actual news headlines. In other words, if I read about such a scenario in the paper tomorrow morning, I don't think I would be too surprised.
This, in and of itself, is not enough to deflate the movie's stabs at black comedy. In fact, it is a ripe premise for satire, but director Francine McDougall keeps the movie's tone pitched at such a screeching level for its entire duration that it becomes deafening all too quickly. Movies like this need at least one grounded character to offset the other caricatures, but Sugar & Spice offers nothing but cartoonish exaggeration.
The story is narrated by Lisa (Marla Sokoloff), a Lincoln High School cheerleader who is bitter about the fact that she is on the B squad, rather than the A squad. Her story is being told to police officers and FBI officials, as she explains why she thinks the members of the A squad, whom she despises out of envy, were responsible for robbing a bank branch in the local supermarket. Lisa is not, of course, a reliable narrator, and the movie gets some of its bigger laughs by juxtaposing her slanted take on the situation with scenes that flatly contradict what she is saying (especially about her own skills at cheerleading).
The captain of the A squad is Diane Weston (Marley Shelton), a perpetually chipper senior who gives herself encouraging platitudes in the mirror each morning before bouncing off to school. Diane becomes romantically involved with Jack Bartlett (James Marsden), the much beloved new quarterback who transferred from another school. On prom night, they announce to their parents that they are going to get married ... and also that Diane is pregnant. Needless to say, their parents aren't particularly thrilled about this development.
So, Jack and Diane (you know, like the early '80s song by John Cougar before he reasserted his own last name and became John Mellencamp) decide to strike out on their own. Unfortunately, they discover that good grades and football records don't do much for you when trying to get a home loan, and Diane quickly sours on the fact that their monthly income from Jack's working after school at a video store doesn't cover their meager bills. So, in a fit of desperation and a moment of inspiration while watching a bank robbery sequence in Point Break, she strikes on the idea of robbing a bank to ensure that her struggling little family gets off to a good start.
Luckily for Diane, one of the other cheerleaders, Kansas (Mena Suvari), has a mom in jail whose jail mates can coach them on such necessities as where to get guns and what day is best for robberies. The other members of the squad include Cleo (Melissa George), who is obsessed with late-night talk-show host Conan O'Brien; Lucy (Sara Marsh), who doesn't want the robbery to risk her scholarship to Harvard; and Hannah (Rachel Blanchard), who is described early on as some kind of an Uber-Christian. They make an unlikely group, but when they pool their resources and energy together, they turn out to be not-half-bad at robbing banks.
Sugar & Spice plays out its story on a heavily saturated pop-culture landscape, suggesting that these girls have learned more about life by watching TV and listening to music than school, parents, and church combined. In other words, it gleefully and satirically confirms most adults' worst nightmare about their children.
At one point Diane begins comparing herself to another woman who found herself pregnant, on a long road, with no place to sleep for the night, which immediately suggests the Virgin Mary. That is, until she begins quoting the refrain, in a deeply earnest tone, from Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach." The girls also believe that they can learn how not to get caught by watching bank-robbery movies like Heat, Dog Day Afternoon, and Reservoir Dogs (poor Hannah can only watch G-rated movies, so she watches The Apple Dumpling Gang) and learning from the characters' mistakes. (They later determine that this is not such a good idea. Watching movies, Diane proclaims, is only good for learning about sex.)
The principle actors all give it their best shot, which mostly means playing their roles in a hyped-up mode that is relentless. This results in not a single character that even remotely represents a human being (who in the world actually acts like these goofy teens?), and while a cartoon can sustain such characterizations for a limited time, a feature-length movie generally cannot.
Unfortunately, the movie never moves beyond this cartoonish humor to delve into the truly perverse possibilities suggested by its premise. While screenwriter Mandy Nelson includes some hilarious throwaway lines from time to time, she is mostly content to stick with pop-culture references and bad jokes about pregnant flatulence, rather than mining the terrain for the darker humor that would have made it a more memorable movie and a sharper satire.
©2001 James Kendrick