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— by Larry Carroll

CHATSWORTH, California — In a scene that has undoubtedly played itself out countless times in towns across the country, teenage girls sit on a big puffy square in the middle of a brightly lit room the size of a warehouse, their parents watching from atop nearby bleachers. As the coach nods approvingly, dozens of legs rise in the air, bending and waving in a Busby Berkeley-like dance. The girls then bounce up out of their positions, link their arms and end the exercise with a laugh.

It's a common enough sight for families with loved ones immersed in the world of competitive gymnastics, but it's rarely seen in the movies ("American Anthem," anyone?). On the enormous red-and-white set of the movie "Stick It" (the title comes from the term for a perfect gymnastic dismount or landing), a group of dedicated young actresses is setting out to teach the world a few things about what they see as an underrepresented and underappreciated sport.

"Stick It" Trailer Premiere

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They're also learning a few things, too, along with the Oscar-nominated Dude who's come along for the ride.

"What's a 'purple nurple'?" laughs Jeff Bridges, the "Big Lebowski" star who plays the girls' coach, Burt Vickerman, in the film.

"[They] tweaked my nipples," he added, rubbing the affected area. "Oh, yeah. But I can't, you know, do it back. They've got me there."

"We joke around all the time," says Vanessa Lengies, an energetic 20-year-old beauty, her brunette hair pulled back in a bun. "We embarrass ourselves and we make fun of ourselves all the time. I mean, we're wearing leotards; the best way to not feel self-conscious in a leo is to pull it up and moon everybody. [T]here are so many crotch jokes, so many nipple jokes, so many armpit jokes; it's so crude and lewd on this set I can't even tell you. I mean, I donít even know if I should be saying this — it's a Disney movie, you know?"

Due in theaters in the late spring of this year, "Stick It" is indeed a Disney movie, which should give you an idea of what this inspirational sports drama hopes to accomplish: Think "Miracle," "Remember the Titans" and "The Rookie," and you're getting there. Throwing another ingredient into the recipe, however, is writer/director and former gymnast Jessica Bendinger.

"I wrote 'Bring It On,' " the affable Bendinger says, still proud of her irreverent 2000 cheerleading hit. "I like to build hybrids. It was cheerleading and hip-hop, two things that do not go together. But put them together and see what happens. With 'Stick It' I wanted to take two things you never see together: gymnastics and rebellion. What would happen if you dropped an Avril Lavigne-type character into this really regimented, militaristic world of elite gymnastics?"

While a leotard-clad array of actresses and real-life gymnasts bounce, balance and blur their way around the gym, 23-year-old Missy Peregrym, the leggy star of the TV series "Life As We Know It," goes over the storyline that casts her as the aforementioned Avril-type. "There is an in-house competition between the girls at Vickerman's gym," she smiles, taking it all in. "[Today's] scene is between Haley (Peregrym) and Joanne (Lengies). They absolutely can't stand each other, and then Mina (Maddy Curley, in her acting debut) and Wei Wei (Nikki SooHoo from 'Phil of the Future,' 'Fields of Mudan') are, like, these unbelievable gymnasts, but are basically sticking to the basic, boring routines because Vickerman is afraid they're going to get hurt. I'm always encouraging them to go for it, and Joanne's always out for herself, trying to psyche everyone out. I just come in and basically destroy her life."

The tale of rebellion has given the mostly wet-behind-the-ears actresses a chance to soak up the techniques of one of Hollywood's most respected actors, while Bridges gets a crash course in the sport.

"I had a great time going to the Junior Nationals here in Los Angeles and observing a lot of the coaches," the star says, flashing his trademark grin. "People thought it was strange that there were all of these wonderful young ladies doing all of these amazing tricks and I was on the floor with my video camera videoing the coaches."

"The script has got to be good if Jeff Bridges only does one script every couple of years, and this is the one he chooses to do," Lengies marvels, glancing over toward the man in the white warm-up suit. "It's amazing to watch how his mind works, how he becomes creative, how he decides where the scene is gonna go and what he adds."

One such moment, she remembers, emerged from a simple cup of java.

 "Stick It" Photos

"He asked props if he could have a mug in this scene, and we were like, 'Why, this scene doesnít ask for you to have a mug in your hand?' And all of a sudden the whole dynamic of the scene is changed. It gave him this scary kind of authoritative energy. Just the way he took his time before he said his line to sip the coffee, it made you think in your head, 'Well, what's he gonna say?' It drew you in. It was absolutely brilliant, and it's inspiring to work with him."

Thanks to Bendinger's dedication to the sport she enjoyed in her early teens, the actresses have received a physical education, as well.

"We had an intense training regimen for them," she says. "They had to go through a casting audition, then they had to go through athletic testing, then they had to go through six hours [of training] a day for three or four months. They had to train to get their bodies up to speed — and they hurt themselves."

In fact, Lengies and Peregrym both suffered back injuries.

"It's a tough sport and things happen," the director allows. "[Peregrym] was throwing falls on trampoline and doing giant swings on bars — all the experts told me you'll never get an actress to do that — and within weeks she was doing really world-class moves."

Bridges sympathizes with their pains, but says it will all pay off.

"People will appreciate it when they see the film," he promises, like a proud professor on graduation day. "Every three or four years, when [gymnastics] are on TV, you check them out [even though] the cameras are kind of back a little bit. Here, you have a chance to really be inside the tricks and know what the gymnasts are going through in a much more dramatic way."

"Stick It" may be an inspirational sports movie, but there will be some PG-13 humor along the lines of "Bring It On," as well. Naturally, then, there has to be some humor behind the camera, too, in order to get the cast in the appropriate mood. As they've prepared to educate us on the world of gymnastics, the actors have also given each other lessons — in acting, in pushing themselves physically and in the subtle and ancient art of the purple nurple.

"Missy is definitely the prankster," giggles Lengies. "She likes to fart in people's faces."

"Well, here's the thing," Peregrym says, smiling, when confronted with the accusation. "I can't deny that, but in my defense, when you're training in gymnastics you're in these weird positions and you can't help it. And you're eating all these protein bars and things. What are you gonna do? Have a stomachache and look bloated for the scene? I think not.

"It's natural, and you just learn how to get comfortable with it," she laughs, before heading back to the floor for another take. "It's all for my craft; it just happens to be in other people's faces."

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