What would Britney do? The question isn’t frivolous. Britney Spears, internationally famous pop star, sells not only Pepsi these days, the 20-year-old also sells a potent fantasy of American not-a-girl-not-yet-a-womanhood so loaded with message and subtext, it practically ka-chings with marketing tie-in opportunities. Here’s a spokesgirl of confident virginal virtue who playfully loves to gyrate like a salesmen’s-bar stripper — a cheerful, disciplined, and hard-working young lady who sings in the pretend-sexy style of a sweet sixteener lip-synching to Marilyn Monroe.
Britney dresses dirty, but she wants us to know she’s Christian clean, so look but don’t paw. She wants us to know that she’s approachable and always up for fun — a spoofy ”SNL” skit, a photo op with ‘N Sync boyfriend Justin Timberlake, a sock hop, a clambake — but she’ll have to check with her manager first. In form, content, and packaging, she’s a made-in-the-USA dream, right down to her Spalding-ball breasts, Crest-sparkling smile, and Borden’s-calf, wide-set eyes.
The millions of preteens and their parents who love her for her Scotchgarded girl-woman perfection aren’t going to be disappointed by Crossroads. Heck and gosh, neither was I, so impressed and even charmed am I by the expertise with which Britney has been gently launched as a movie star. This girl-dream road trip, a kid sister to ”Boys on the Side,” with a friendly jiggle or two of ”Coyote Ugly” thrown in, not only makes excellent use of the singer’s sweetly coltish acting abilities, but it also promotes a standardized set of sturdy values with none of Mariah Carey’s desperate ”Glitter,” or any of Mandy Moore’s gummy pap in ”A Walk to Remember.” Family is important, but good friends can make things better for those with imperfect families. Drinking alcohol is icky. No one worth knowing smokes. As always, an American girl should follow her bliss — but she should also phone home.
Above all, look to Britney Spears; she’ll do the right thing. Why, from her very opening shot in ”Crossroads” she does things right, bouncing in her undies in her girlish bedroom, holding a spoon for a microphone (no hairbrush available?) and lip-synching to Madonna’s ”Open Your Heart.” Here, Britney’s called Lucy, and we quickly know this: (1) She’s not just a dish, she’s also valedictorian of her small-town Georgia high school class; (2) she wants to find the mother in Tucson who ditched her when she was 3, leaving her to be raised by her overprotective car-mechanic father (Dan Aykroyd); (3) her worst faults, according to the meanest kids in the hall, are that she’s ”sweet, proper, nerdy… and a virgin”; (4) Kit (Zoë Saldana) and Mimi (Taryn Manning), her two best childhood friends, have grown up to become a luxury-loving buppie clotheshorse engaged to a cad at college in L.A. (that’s Kit), and a self-described daughter of trailer trash now pregnant, unmarried, and eager to drive far away from her bad-luck present to a more exciting future in star-making California (that’s Mimi).
Thus the three young women find themselves riding west in a cool ’73 Buick convertible with Mimi’s mysterious male friend, Ben (Anson Mount), a hunky guitar-playing loner with a rep for having been in jail, possibly for murder, who turns out, of course, to be an upstanding fellow who unchains Lucy’s heart. And bod. There has been some consternation, I gather, among members of the Society for the Preservation of Virginal Role Models, that Britney, as Lucy, relinquishes her tiara as princess of purity. But what’s exemplary, for those who would consider such things, is the admirable way in which Lucy does assert control and exhibit maturity about her own sexuality. Among the many concise, lesson-plan scenes by Shonda Rhimes (who wrote the fine teleplay for ”Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”) is an early one in which Lucy gently but firmly says no at the last minute to sex with her high school boyfriend (hey, girls: as is her right), which contrasts effectively with the slow, honorable, deepening relationship between Lucy and Ben that leads most naturally, and with no camera gawking, to bed.
Not everything in ”Crossroads” unfolds so smoothly. Lucy’s contact with her mother (Kim Cattrall!) is just plain weird, and a subplot involving the circumstances of Mimi’s pregnancy is contrived and false — a serious subject treated as mere device, a detour from Britneycentrism rather than the real-deal major moral drama it deserves to be. But Tamra Davis, the music-loving director who knew exactly how to let Drew Barrymore be Drew in ”Guncrazy” (and, for that matter, let Adam Sandler be Adam in ”Billy Madison”), drives this sporty vehicle with pro precision. In ”Crossroads,” Britney has been delivered to the big screen safe and sound, the way we like our 20-year-old superstar girls to travel on the fame freeway.