On repeated listens, when Britney Spears sings I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman, the lyrics seem to drag their feet to the simple point she’s making: it’s not easy standing on the edge of adulthood. No one can deny, however, that the agony of the in-between age is her song to sing. Spears’s own career has told the story of prolonged adolescence with eloquence over the course of three decades: after early stardom in the Mickey Mouse Club she became first a precocious schoolgirl pop star then a gossip-magazine punchline and the reluctant ward of her own father’s conservatorship. Back on the verge of her 20s, Spears sang her song in Crossroads, a 90-minute movie that was unfairly dismissed by critics but embraced by her audience. The Britney fans were on to a good thing – this movie is far better than you may have heard. When Spears’s character Lucy reads out the lyrics to I’m Not a Girl in front of a crackling campfire, they sound fresh. When she belts them out at the film’s climax, they’re almost revelatory.
While other pop star vehicles reach for camp glamour or tales of overnight success (hello, Glitter), 2002’s Crossroads is a disarmingly sweet (so sweet!) coming-of-age story about three friends crossing the US in search of personal growth, cruising across statelines in a lemon-lime Buick Skylark, driven by a dreamy hunk with an undeserved bad-boy rep. The plot is the stuff of countless teen daydreams, but in execution it’s very much of its time, a period that Sirin Kale recently described in these pages as “a cursed era” for young women and girls. Crossroads captures the pastel aesthetic that Spears perfected – body glitter, blue eyeshadow and miles of midriff – a sickly-sweet look that went hand-in-hand with a boom in ironic pop-culture misogyny and uncomfortably sexualised imagery of young female singers.
Crossroads swerves that trap, being made by people, from Spears and her young co-stars to screenwriter Shonda Rhimes (just then in her early 30s and pre-Grey’s Anatomy) who were sympathetic to the tribulations of early 21st-century girlhood. The film’s director is the feminist music-video veteran Tamra Davis, who had made her feature debut a decade before with Guncrazy, which starred Drew Barrymore as a teenage abuse survivor out for revenge. When 18-year-old Lucy shimmies up to a pole in a nightclub, it seems just as innocent as the early scene in which she dances around her bedroom getting dressed and singing Madonna’s Open Your Heart. A year later Spears would duet with, and kiss, her idol on stage at the VMAs wrapped in mock-virginal lace.
While the visuals gleam, there’s some grit on the road. Crossroads tackles pressing issues (body image, rape, teenage pregnancy, maternal abandonment), and it does so frankly and without judgment, while emphasising a woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy. Still, it’s overwhelmingly nice: a teen-friendly story about a young girl finding her voice, sweetened by a soundtrack of (em)power-pop ballads and Spears’s own staggeringly sincere performance. She plays Lucy, a virginal high school valedictorian with an overbearing father (yes), and she’s accompanied on her road trip by cliquey homecoming queen Kit (played beautifully by Zoe Saldana), and Mimi, who has a bun in the oven and needs to get out of her trailer park, quick. Taryn Manning, who recently shone as an evangelical meth-head in Orange is the New Black, plays Mimi with real fire, and there’s a song by her own band, Boomkat, on the movie’s soundtrack. The same year, Manning also appeared alongside Eminem in 8 Mile: a cross-comparison of the two films would find a couple of similarities.
The only way Crossroads could have achieved more pop cultural weight in 2002 would have been if the producers had succeeded, as hoped, in snagging Madonna to play Lucy’s estranged mother. But here, as always, we have no reason to complain about Kim Cattrall’s enigmatic appearance as a woman still running away from her own youthful mistakes. Like Cattrall, Dan Aykroyd plays his role as Lucy’s dad with a sincerity that follows Spears’s lead. Crossroads was designed to represent what Britney Spears meant to her young fans, a hand to hold through the minefield of growing up. That’s why her endearing earnestness shines through every deliberately unironic scene.
Some of those negative reviews recoiled at the film’s savvy as a star vehicle – the way it builds up and reinforces Spears’s commercial persona, from her virginity to her work ethic. Two decades later, the product placement for Spears-endorsed brands Pepsi and Herbal Essences, if not her labelmates Bowling For Soup, may instead summon a frisson of nostalgia. The music cues are spot-on, too. For anyone of the right age, the gigglesome moment when the girls commandeer the car radio to play ‘NSync’s Bye Bye Bye reminds us of a time when Spears and Justin Timberlake were MTV’s teenage power couple, before their love turned sour. In short, of a time when it seemed that there was hope for Britney Spears and hope for us all.