Criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's monthly series, our movie critic gives fresh consideration to the movies, actors and pop culture moments that shaped entire generations. It’s time for a rewrite.
I had to buy an actual DVD in order to revisit Crossroads, the Tamra Davis-directed and Shonda Rhimes-written 2002 coming-of-age road trip movie, featuring none other than pop star Britney Spears in her first — and only — starring role. You’d think that the most notable entry in Spears’ filmography — written by the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, and helmed by the director of Billy Madison and Half Baked, no less — would be available to stream on the internet, but you’d be wrong. You can’t rent it on iTunes, nor does it appear in Amazon Prime’s catalogue. Hulu doesn’t have it, nor does YouTube, Vudu, or Google Play. Netflix used to have it, but no longer. Which begs the question: What good is having 25 bajillion streaming subscriptions if I cannot watch Britney Spears, playing a virginal, high school valedictorian named Lucy, do Joan Jett-karaoke whenever I want?
But, Crossroads’ absence from the streaming universe goes hand in hand with its overall reputation as a fluffy piece of teeny bopper pop culture, rather than an essential entry in the canon of Cinema. The movie currently holds a 14% Rotten Tomatoes rating. When it was released in February 2002, male critics seemed confused that a film starring a sexy pop star did not feature more of that pop star being, well, sexy — or what they considered sexy, anyway.
“If you’re not the target demographic, which Spears helpfully defines in the film’s single — ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ — this movie is one long chick-flick slog,” Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone, adding that “randy males, ranging from hormone-charged teens to a Viagra-fueled Bob Dole, will have to save the drool for Pepsi commercials, belly-baring videos and tracks in which the twenty-year-old pop princess whispers, ‘I’m a slave for you.’”
Nathan Rabin echoed that sentiment over at the A/V Club. “Spears is filmed and costumed in such a harsh, unflattering manner that it looks like Christina Aguilera bribed the crew to make her rival look as hideous as possible,” he wrote.
The inability for critics — men and women alike — to give consideration to the opinions of teenage girls as an audience is pervasive; it’s the same attitude that fueled a recent debate over Leonardo DiCaprio’s star power before and after Titanic. His performance in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet spoke to an entire generation of young women, but many men discount the importance of that since it didn’t speak to them.
Roger Ebert nailed the conundrum, albeit in his negative review of Crossroads, which once again emphasized the movie’s lack of male-gaze sex-appeal. “I went to Crossroads expecting a glitzy bimbofest and got the bimbos but not the fest. Britney Spears' feature debut is curiously low-key and even sad,” he wrote.
Crossroads opens with young Lucy (played by Spears’ younger sister, Jamie Lynn) making a pact with her two best friends, Kit and Mimi : At midnight, following their high school graduation, they’ll dig up the friendship box in which they’ve placed tokens of their hopes and dreams. By the time graduation rolls around however, the girls — and their friendship — have changed pretty dramatically. Lucy is a virginal valedictorian who confines her love of singing to performing in her bedroom with a hairbrush for a mic; Kit (Zoe Saldana), the popular one, is already engaged at 18 to a sophomore at UCLA. Meanwhile, Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant, and looking to get the hell out of their Georgia hometown.
Despite having grown apart over the years, something draws them back to that spot in the woods where they’d buried their ambitions years earlier. It’s then that Mimi lays out her plan: She’s heading to California for an open studio audition, hitching a ride with local guitarist and bad boy, Ben (Anson Mount). Lucy, discouraged by her dad’s (Dan Akroyd) inability to explain why her mom left years earlier, decides to join them so she can travel to Arizona to meet her mother (Kim Cattrall). And finally Kit, whose fiance has been evasive and cagey over the phone, joins the adventure so she can confront her ghosting guy in person. And so off they go, embarking on a cross-country adventure complete with romance, disappointment, self-discovery — and karaoke.
With a budget of only $12 million (which would yield a gross of more than $60 million at the box office), Crossroads has an intimate atmosphere, probably fostered by the majority-female crew put together by Davis and producer Ann Carli.
Davis’ past experience as a music video director is apparent in the crackling energy of the musical scenes, which include the now-famous rendition of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” as well as joyous, rambunctious sing-alongs to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman,” and Sheryl Crowe’s “If It Makes You Happy.” But the movie’s handling of complicated female friendships, teen pregnancy, sexual assault, race, and ambition feels like it is all Rhimes. Saldana, who reportedly flubbed her audition and flew across the country to plead with Davis for the part, is a scene stealer, and her performance as a Type-A, popular girl arguably set the stage for a future Rhimes creation: Scandal’s Olivia Pope.
But that’s not the only place where Crossroads exhibits Rhimes’ signature style; it’s not a film that’s afraid of dramatic, bordering on unbelievable twists and turns. Mimi’s arc features her first coming to terms with the sexual assault that led to her pregnancy, then confronting her rapist (who, in a classic Rhimes move, turns out to be Kit’s dirtbag fiance), and ultimately having a miscarriage, is one that would seem at home in an episode of Grey’s.
Kim Cattrall’s remarkably unsentimental portrayal of Lucy’s mother, who explains that she left her daughter because she’d never really wanted to have her, feels like a rare glimpse into a type of woman who is not often seen on screen: the non-nurturing mother. And while the language Kit uses to talk about her struggle with body image may be outdated, her complicated feelings towards her weight and how it alters the way people perceive her echo a conversation we’re still having today about dieting and weight-loss as a pathway to happiness. Lucy’s eventual loss of her virginity is also notable in that, rather than veering into cliche, it’s shown as a moment of empowerment — all the more notable considering Spears’ own complicated history in discussing her virginity with the media.
This frankness around complicated subjects did not go unnoticed by everyone at the time — just by critics. “I like the fact that it’s very emotional and deals with real teen issues,” Spears said in a 2002 interview. “Teenagers can see that and feel like whatever is going in their world — they’re not alone.”
In 2002, Spears was barely out of her own teenage years, and found herself at a crossroads of her own.. Fresh off the mega-success of three consecutive albums — 1998’s ...Baby One More Time, 2000’s Oops...I Did It Again, and 2001’s Britney — she was wildly successful, and ranked at the top of Forbes’ list of most powerful celebrities With a lucrative endorsement deal with Pepsi, and a high-profile relationship with fellow Mickey Mouse Club alum Justin Timberlake, the world was at her feet. But although she was idolized, she wasn’t respected. The people around her exploited her fame and talent, but didn’t seem to care much about what was going on beneath the surface. Turbulent years lay ahead for Spears: A quick marriage, two kids, a messy divorce and custody battle would all take place within five years of Crossroads’ release, ultimately leading to Spears’ involuntary commitment to a mental health facility in 2008. Although Spears now has a thriving career, thanks in part to the stability of a long-running performance residency in Las Vegas, she does not have control over her assets; her father is her conservator, almost as if Spears is a perpetual teenager, unable to ever get out from under anyone’s thumb, unable to escape the all-encompassing male gaze.
In Crossroads, the male gaze is sometimes present — whenever Lucy, Kit, and Mimi are on-stage, the camera pans over their legs and midriffs, laid bare by tiny skirts and crop tops. But other times, like when they’re goofing around in their car, sharing memories and disappointments over mini-bar booze, or just singing for pleasure, that male gaze is gone. Sweatpants and messy buns replace the low-rise jeans, and, even if only for a moment, they get to be teenagers, existing in that rare place where all that matters is their own thoughts and feelings. Not quite girls whose future is dictated by overbearing parents, and not quite women, despite what some critics may have wished, but somewhere in between.