Out of the Box

Not yet a woman: Britney Spears (right) and friends in 'Crossroads'
Paramount Pictures

Midway through Crossroads, Britney Spears's character Lucy listens to a tune a boy has created to accompany a poem she has written. Lucy leans toward the boy at the piano, humming along (rather too easily), then matching words to melody (rather too quickly). Movies tend to portray songwriting as a magic trick, an egg from a hat...ta-da! And maybe that's why the two 15-year-olds next to me were giggling like monkeys. Or maybe it was Lucy's dire words--It feels like I'm caught in the middle/That's when I realize I'm not a girl, not yet a woman--performed with such clunky earnestness that I, too, had to laugh out loud. Me and the other 300 people in the theater.

As the gales of laughter blew past my head, I thought, Wow--this is not good news for the filmmakers. I actually felt sorry for them, which is not an emotion I was expecting to feel during the first big-screen adventure of Pepsi's multimillion-dollar woman. But there's something about Crossroads that makes me want to root for it, despite its epidemic silliness. And a large part of that something is, believe it or not, Britney Spears.

Directed by Tamra Davis of Billy Madison fame, Crossroads boasts all the energy and depth of a Once and Again episode. The movie opens on three prepubescent girls burying a box, which, according to the voiceover, contains their biggest wishes. The greatest wish, however, doesn't go in the box. "Let's be friends forever," says one girl. "We will," answer the others. Good grief, sighs the viewer. This is PG-13? Then, after a flash forward, it is: Britney as Lucy in a skimpy top and bikini briefs lap-dancing under a Madonna poster and singing into a spoon. Oh, I get it: She's your normal teen pretending to be a singer in a music video. It's just that she looked so much like Britney Spears pretending to be a singer in a music video, I got confused.

The box, of course, represents the stuff that girls put away when they enter adolescence: confidence, physical ease, the courage to go their own way. Lucy, it turns out, has become her school's book-bound valedictorian (gobs of silly), which is bad because her single dad wanted it more than she did--and besides, she never got to party. Kit (Zoë Saldana) slimmed down and was crowned most popular; her dreams go no farther than the altar. Trailer-park Mimi (Taryn Manning) is knocked up, unhooked, and desperate. The best friends have grown worlds apart, until Mimi reminds them of their pledge to dig up the wish box on graduation night. Box or no box, they would've stayed apart but for Mimi's plan to drive from Georgia to Los Angeles to audition for a recording contract.

Okay, this is seriously silly stuff--not to mention the two lovingly filmed scenes of lingerie-clad Lucy in the first ten minutes. By the time the girls hop in the convenient convertible of a dangerous dreamboat (Anson Mount) and have perfectly audible conversations speeding down the freeway with the top down, I was wishing for a Pepsi myself. It has a lot to give, you know, and I was hoping for a jolt of something closer to the real world--or, at the very least, Road Rules. (Did I mention that one of the producers of Crossroads is MTV Films?)

But right about then I started pulling for these three not-girls-not-women and their suddenly goofy consort. The silliness doesn't end. (Lucy and the girls earn what must be about a thousand dollars at...uh, a karaoke bar.) The story still feels flat and forced. But Manning's Mimi roughens her voice with the husk of hurt--and puts on some slammin' dance moves. It's fun to watch Saldana's Kit grow muscles to fill out that SuperBitch attitude. The singing-along-to-the-radio-in-a-convertible thing works its magic (though a Thelma & Louise joke went right over the heads of the young core audience).

As for Britney...well, she ducks out of the Britney persona for a tiny bit (even as she takes her career to a whole new level!). Frankly, the robot that is Britney Spears frightens me. I haven't seen her perform when her eyes didn't appear completely dead. A friend says she looks like a porn star: anonymously pretty face masked in makeup, clichéd erotic thrusts, contrived sassiness. Whenever Lucy sings into a microphone, Britney takes over. But when Lucy is Lucy being silly with her friends, she's somebody else--somebody just coming into being. I know it's odd to say that Britney seems more real when she's trying to become someone else. I know that the Britney-bot is some people's idea of the perfect woman. But Thelma and Louise didn't drive off that cliff so their daughters could be confidently (and continuously) sexy. They were looking for something sillier than that: something like room to move.

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