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It’s a Dunstocracy: ‘Bring It On’ and the Magic of Kirsten Dunst

Twenty years ago, the iconic teen movie helped establish Dunst’s career. In hindsight, it’s clear that it also helped establish the formula for her finest roles.

Ringer illustration

Tied to the 20th anniversary of Bring It On, we hereby dub the next five days Teen Movie Week. Dig up your varsity jacket, pull up to your cafeteria table, and relive your adolescence as we celebrate the best coming-of-age movies ever made.

One of the sweetest scenes in romantic comedy history takes place in a bathroom. Two high school students with crushes on each other stand at Jack-and-Jill sinks in a Southern California manse, alternating sidelong glances in the mirror as they brush their teeth in tandem. The scene is simple and mostly wordless, all averted eyes and awkward spitting. It perfectly captures the tension of infatuation, and the potential of something new—which is to say that it perfectly captures being a teenager. And it stands out because, ultimately, it’s tangential to the real story of the movie, which is about cheerleading, of course.

It was 20 years ago this past weekend that Bring It On, a sassy story about competitive high school cheerleaders, premiered at a surprise no. 1 with $17 million at the box office, eclipsing a Wesley Snipes vehicle called The Art of War that had been expected to lead the way. One of a number of hit turn-of-the-century teen films that boosted the careers of a generation of talent, Bring It On coined phrases, from “spirit fingers” to “This is not a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy,” and elevated its lead Kirsten Dunst—playing Torrance, that girl brushing her teeth and blushing in the mirror—from a precocious young actress into a bona fide movie star. Dunst’s portrayal of Torrance put on display the myriad gifts she has to offer as an actress: wounded pride, bossy dismissiveness, spritely beauty, and an ability to deliver lines like, “Missy’s the poo, so take a big whiff,” with what can only be described as a savage wrinkle of the nose.

Bring It On was part sports flick, part teen romp, and part rom-com, with Jesse Bradford playing the role of that other toothbrusher, a sort of proto–Dan Humphrey type with a penchant for highly demonstrative air guitar. Throughout the film, the burgeoning relationship between Torrance and Cliff is fun and satisfying to watch unfold, but it’s not even the second-most-interesting pairing that develops. That adorable bathroom scene with Bradford’s Cliff? It took place because Torrance was at his house having a sleepover with the aforementioned poo, Missy—Cliff’s sister, played by Eliza Dushku, the newest and most skeptical member of the Toros cheerleading squad, whose unlikely collaboration is the movie’s backbone.

As for the movie’s heart, it beats loudest whenever Torrance and her rival cheerleading captain, Isis, played by Gabrielle Union, are on-screen together. They eye each other with venom; their exchanges have the spirit of a Sparky Polastri routine. In many ways, their interplay is the oldest plot in the book: two worthy adversaries whose tango of antagonism melts into the embrace of mutual respect. In hindsight, Bring It On was an early example of a type of performance in which the now 38-year-old Dunst has thrived most fiercely and fabulously: one in which she is surrounded by (and fighting among, and loyal to, and annoyed by, and besties with) other women, one in which having girlfriends is as elemental to the story as being one.

Some people have an elbow like a skeleton key, capable of unlocking it all: The second they cheerfully link their arm through your own and lean in to whisper a rumor or a scheme or a favor they need, the answer is automatically yes. While I have never had the personal pleasure of this sort of gossip sesh with Dunst, the filmmaker Michel Gondry, who directed her in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, sure has. “I had a really good time talking bad about people with Kirsten,” he told The New York Times in 2004. “She doesn’t mind saying, ‘I don’t like this girl, she’s this and she’s that.’ It makes you feel a closeness with her. It’s charming.”

Which may be why so many of the roles Dunst chooses feel so alive with tittering best-friends-necklace intimacy: like Dunst and Michelle Williams huddled inside the Watergate Hotel in the criminally underrated 1999 film Dick—a movie that somehow almost feels fresher now than it did when it was released—or Dunst and a luminous Rose Byrne staying up till dawn doing drugs at Versailles in 2006’s Marie Antoinette. Both of those films may have a campiness to them, but in spite of (because of?) that, they are somehow also highly realistic depictions of various contours and stages of idiosyncratic female friendships.

Some people have a gaze like a spotlight, leaving you basking and blinded, exhilarated and exposed, keenly aware of your potential and your imperfections all at once. While I’ve never personally stared directly into Dunst’s sunlike visage, I’m certain she’s one of these people, because even when she’s in character, and even through the filter of a TV screen, there’s a real glow to her glare.

You can feel it when her prim character Betty Warren smugly purses her lips at the new teacher played by Julia Roberts in the 2003 midcentury period piece Mona Lisa Smile, set at the women’s college Wellesley. Or when, while playing the role of a boarding school girl named Verena von Stefan—who is bewitched by the vulgar phrase “up your ziggy with a wawa brush!”—she beams approvingly at the new girl played by Gaby Hoffmann in the 1998 midcentury period piece All I Wanna Do. (That movie is worth watching for a cast that also includes a young Vincent Kartheiser and Merritt Wever.)

In 2017’s The Beguiled, Dunst, playing a frustrated teacher named Edwina in a Civil War–era Southern boarding school, shoots a lot of longing glances in the direction of Colin Farrell’s wounded Union soldier. But all of Edwina’s finest facial expressions are reserved for the way she looks at the teenaged Elle Fanning with a mix of wisdom, reproach, and envy.

The Beguiled was directed by Sofia Coppola, with whom Dunst has worked since before she ever appeared in Bring It On. In 1999, Dunst appeared as the beautiful, tragic Lux Lisbon in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, an adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides novel. If Bring It On helped launch Dunst to lasting stardom, The Virgin Suicides primed the catapult.

The movie wasn’t Dunst’s debut; far from it: She began acting as a child, and by the time she was barely a teenager she had already proved herself to be a unique personality, memorably informing the world that the brief on-screen kiss she planted on her much older costar Brad Pitt in Interviews With the Vampire was nothing to be jealous of: It was gross, she said in interviews, because his lips were so dry. But being cast in The Virgin Suicides and working with Coppola was the start of a creative partnership that has endured ever since.

“People saw me in a different light, as not just a little girl anymore,” after The Virgin Suicides, Dunst explained on the Happy Sad Confused podcast last August. “And I was lucky, because it was Sofia. I was in a woman’s hands.” The experience left her fortified with deserved confidence at an age, and in a profession, in which the discourse toward women is frequently far more diminishing.

Just look at this 2001 Rolling Stone piece, called “The Temptations of Kirsten Dunst,” which ran when she was still a teenager and included questions like: “Has virginity been an issue in terms of your image?” and “Is there an appropriate age for having sex?” (She was in a movie called Crazy/Beautiful about a rebellious and horny rich girl at the time, but still.) Contrast that lascivious vibe—the status quo, really—with the way Dunst remembers being cared for by Coppola on the Virgin Suicides set. The director’s tenderness, her female gaze, was like a talisman for Dunst as she faced future high-pressure roles.

“[Coppola] was like, ‘I love your teeth,’” Dunst continued on Happy Sad Confused. “So by the time I got to the big, big Hollywood movies like Spider-Man, where they were like, ‘You should fix your teeth,’ I knew, like: Sofia is way cooler than you, and she says no. I’m not going to get some stupid veneers and be your dumb blond actress. Sorry, guys.”

“You know how there are, like, serial killers, and then there’s Hannibal Lecter?” says one dude to another in 2012’s Bachelorette, attempting to contextualize Dunst’s character, Regan. “There are girls … and then there’s Regan.” (I appreciated this; any girlsquad worth its tequila salt can only benefit from having an erudite cannibal as its leader.) Bachelorette is a lot like the drugs the women snort during the movie: harsh, destructive, and subversively fun. It answers the question, What if Bridesmaids, except Very Bad Things? I find it to be some of Dunst’s finest work.

In this case, the role closest to Christian Slater’s twisted Very Bad Things ringleader is the one played by Dunst. She puts a spin on the archetype of the terrifying, hypercompetent queen bee that is somehow unlike anything I’ve ever seen on screen, yet is also so familiar to real life that it’s borderline triggering to behold. (Dunst’s nostrils deserve award recognition for the way they flare when she learns that her old friend has gotten engaged before she has.)

At one point in Bachelorette, a still-un-affianced Regan complains: “I did everything right. I went to college, I exercised, I’ve had a boyfriend since med school, and nothing is happening to me.” Her character’s tone here is not very far from Dunst’s own in a SiriusXM interview she did last August, in which she wondered why her hard work hadn’t yielded certain forms of external validation, either.

In response to an intended springboard of a question from host Larry Flick—“When was the first time you felt the power of your storytelling?” he asked—Dunst said, “I have never felt that power.” She continued: “I’ve never been recognized in my industry. I’ve never been nominated for anything. Maybe, like, twice for Golden Globes when I was little and one for Fargo. But, like, I always feel like nobody—I don’t know. Maybe they think I’m just the girl from Bring It On? I don’t know.”

Of course, being “the girl from Bring It On” is kind of like being “the queen from England”: Long may both reign! But Dunst has a point, and in some ways, she can’t catch a break. At Cannes in 2011, Dunst was recognized for her stark turn as a woman alternately dragged down and buoyed by her depression during the final days of planet Earth’s existence in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. But even that accolade was overshadowed by a controversial press conference by Von Trier that resulted in the Cannes Film Festival banning him from the event.

Dunst’s performance in that moody Melancholia was effective in part for how starkly it contrasted with so many of her typical roles. Her character, in the grip of depression, moves and speaks with a weariness that Dunst, who in 2008 sought treatment for her own depression, inhabits with empathetic intensity. “I brought my own slant,” she told British Elle in 2017 about the role, “but I am very much portraying Lars’s experience of depression. We met before I did the movie and talked about how the light goes out of your eyes.” This being Dunst, her scenes with another woman—Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays her anxious older sister—still crackle with repressed energy, looming like an apocalyptic planet above the more grounded exchanges between her and her fiancé, played by Alexander Skarsgard.

In a 2004 interview with Blackfilm, Dunst, who had recently shot the middling romantic comedy Wimbledon, explained why she wasn’t fond of that line of work. Another Dunst movie in this genre, the 2005 Cameron Crowe flick Elizabethtown, was at the time a high-profile bust. “Romantic comedies are the hardest to do,” she told Blackfilm, adding that it’s hard to maintain “that freshness of flirting, you know what I mean, when you’re on take twenty and it’s a different person’s close-up and you’re, like, still delivering these lines that are cute and this and that and, you know, have to be sexy or whatever.” Since then, she has mostly chosen roles—like 2010’s true crime film All Good Things, in which she is the disappeared wife of a New York real estate magnate based on Robert Durst and played by Ryan Gosling—where the relationships taste more like black licorice than bubblegum.

Which may be why Dunst’s best portrayal of a relationship is not exactly a hot and heavy one. In Season 2 of the FX anthology series Fargo, she plays a striving, crime up-covering, earmuffs-wearing Minnesota housewife named Peggy Blumquist who is married to the town’s bumbling butcher, played by Jesse Plemons. Their chemistry is off the charts; their work together is sublime; the fact that they wound up married in real life is the most beautiful love story I can possibly imagine. But their relationship on screen isn’t actually the story of two lovey-dovebirds. Theirs is a far more important genre of connection, the kind at which Dunst excels: the one between a mean girl and her put-upon sidekick. Flirting is ephemeral, but fighting? Fighting is forever.

One reason I probably view Dunst so specifically as one-of-the-gals is that she’s only a year older than me, which means that I’ve followed her career long enough to have compiled what is probably a more complete longitudinal dossier of nostalgia, gossip, and fun facts than I have on even some of my longest, closest friends.

I saw her on Jeopardy! and in The Bonfire of the Vanities. When she got the plum role of Amy in 1994’s Little Women, I felt personally jealous, as I too was a dramatic child with blond hair. Bring It On came out the summer before my senior year in high school, and that fall we would always joke “this is a field hockracacy!” out on the fields during practice. One of the only proper dates I went on in college was to go see Spider-Man. After I graduated and moved to New York, I once spotted Dunst at the Beatrice Inn; in my admittedly unreliable memory she was wearing what looked to be a sailor suit. I read about her exploits on the early-century nightlife scene in Page Six and Gawker, following along as she dated Jake Gyllenhaal, and Garrett Hedlund, and various musicians. Most recently, I patiently awaited her planned feature-length directorial debut, an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to which Dakota Fanning and Plemons were attached—only to learn, years later, that Dunst was no longer involved. “That ship sunk,” she told Entertainment Weekly, and my spirits did too.

Dunst’s lack of filter can often feel like being let in on a secret, further blurring the line between celebrity and familiarity. Dunst may have said all the right things in 2006, after her and Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was met with a chilly reception at Cannes. “We didn’t make the film for the critics,” she told Another Magazine in 2006; “Of course I care, but I care that my friends love it, and people whose opinions I respect.” But last August, she shared how she had really felt. “I remember it really hurting my feelings,” she said on Happy Sad Confused. “You care so much, and to have something where you’re just vulnerable just sucks.” On SiriusXM, she admitted that she’d had “a lot of disappointments,” and that a lot of her films only earned praise long after they’d initially been panned.

Bring It On was no such disappointment, at least. Written by Jessica Bendinger, the movie was shopped around for a long time until two women, Max Wong and Caitlin Scanlon at Beacon Pictures, heard the pitch and were immediately hooked. The hard part was convincing their bosses. “I think that a lot of the nos and resistance that Jessica got when she pitched,” Wong told MTV News for a Bring It On oral history, “were based on the idea that nobody is going to want to see a movie about the stupid girls that you hated in high school. I was like, ‘I hated them in high school and I would still see this movie.’”

Ultimately, the film, with a budget of $11 million, grossed $90 million worldwide, becoming a genuine cultural phenomenon. (You know something is big when a line satirizing it—in this case, “It’s already been broughten,” from Not Another Teen Movie—becomes almost as famous as the source line itself.) When Dunst went on Kelly Clarkson’s talk show last fall to promote her new Showtime series, On Becoming a God in Central Florida, the singer seemed more keen on hearing about an older work. “Everyone always brings up Bring It On,” Clarkson said, doing so herself, “Which I also love. It’s a classic! Do you get asked about Bring It On like I get asked about ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’?”

“Well, Kelly,” Dunst deadpanned, winningly, “I also have a child and I don’t leave my home. So, I actually don’t get asked anything.” As the two talked about Dunst’s willingness to participate in a Bring It On sequel some day (high!), all I could think about was the world of opportunity before us all: Torrance and Isis, two decades of wisdom and life and new motherhood later, facing off once again, this time as their daughters’ proxies, the inevitable culmination of one of the great cinematic relationships of our time. Hannibal Lecter could never.