By Claire White | September 7, 2021
In the opening scene of Crossroads (2002), a teenage girl dances around her bedroom singing along to Madonna’s ‘Open Your Heart.’ With her door closed, it’s a private and carefree moment away from the pressures and expectations demanded of her on the day of her high school graduation. It’s just a moment in time, a moment that is hers.
The scene is familiar to so many girls who see it, because who hasn’t danced around the room singing to your favourite song? What makes this scene different, though, is that the teenage girl is portrayed by pop sensation Britney Spears, and she is in her underwear. To me, her being in her underwear is an insignificant detail; it even makes sense for the setting. But for many reviewers, it’s (rather creepily) the only part of the film worth mentioning. Chris Kaltenbach wrote for The Baltimore Sun, “Go see Crossroads if you want to hear Britney sing or see her wear next-to-nothing. But otherwise, avoid this trainwreck at all costs.” Similarly, Jeremy Conrad wrote for IGN “Casual ‘admirers’ of the singer would probably, uh, enjoy her hopping up and down on her bed in her undies or the scene of her in her pink bra and panties, but everyone else may want to stay away.” Released in early 2002, Crossroads was at the height of Britney’s fame. A child star member of The Mickey Mouse Club turned teen icon and then international mega-star, the early 2000s was a period where Britney was growing into a young woman and discovering her sexuality (the very sexy and very iconic ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, which led to the pearl-clutching of many, was released a year earlier in 2001). However, this left commentators and critics unable to view Britney and her turn in a (relatively innocent) coming-of-age film about independence and female friendship through any other lens.
Directed by Tamra Davis and written by pre-Grey’s Anatomy Shonda Rhimes, Crossroads is the story of three former-best friends who reconnect on the night of their high-school graduation and go on a road trip from their home in small-town Georgia to Los Angeles. Each girl has their own reasons to get to LA: Mimi (Taryn Manning), who is seen as the school’s outcast due to her life in a trailer park and being heavily pregnant, is on her way to a singing competition to win a recording contract, and asks her former-friends to come with her; the popular Queen Bee Kit (Zoe Saldana), clings to the idea of her absent fiance, and joins the trip to visit him at UCLA, where he goes to school; and Lucy (Spears), the sweet and lonely Valedictorian, who wishes to break free from her overbearing, but loving, father goes in search of her estranged mother in Arizona.
The late 90s and 2000s were a time of spectacular girlhoods. Whether it was TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003), or movies like the Bring It On (2000-2009) series and The Princess Diaries (2001), teen girls were shown as gifted, talented, or even royalty. Off screen, this phenomenon was stoked by the rise of pop stars like The Spice Girls, Christina Aguilera and most notably, Britney. The flash of paparazzi cameras, the shine of Hilary Duff’s lipgloss, the sparkle of a belly-button ring were all images saturating the market. Crossroads is no exception to this, not only from the very presence of Britney, but also evident every time Lucy gets on stage to sing, decked out in studded belts and drenched in stage lights.
But the film isn’t as flashy as one would expect for the time. In tone with the earthy and pale hues of the desert and cheap motels, the film is shot in a de-saturated style, creating a less polished texture than that of, say, Clueless (1995) or Jawbreaker (1999). Furthermore, we can look at a comparison between Crossroads and 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, the star-vehicle for one of Britney’s predecessors, Madonna. In Susan, Madonna embodies a character who is just as mysterious, glamorous and awe-inspiring as she is in real life. She wears her of-the-era signature lace bow in her hair, stacks of bracelets and a highly coveted jacket. Madonna’s Susan is not only the image of the woman New Jersey housewife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) desperately wanted to become, but the film contributes to the vibrant, fairytale vision of New York. It is a film, and setting, befitting Madonna. Spears’ Lucy, on the other hand, is the sweet good girl, sitting in a rusty car dressed in sweatpants and a bucket hat. Here is a pop idol dressed down-to-earth, away from the glitz and glam we usually see her surrounded by. We are reminded that Britney is just a girl from Louisiana, which allows her to reach out to girls on their level and say “I am just like you,” (admittedly, as much as one can on a film set that was created for you), and these everyday issues surrounding growing up are real.
In 2002, Nathan Rabbin wrote for AV Club, “Crossroads could traumatize 10-year-old girls looking for lighthearted escapism, and not just because of the vacuum-like nature of Spears’ performance or the film’s grainy, under-lit look.” While the film does deal with heavy topics such as body image, rape, estranged and/or abusive parents, and a miscarriage with a hint of Rhimes-esque melodrama,the film does not intend to traumatise. These heavy topics are portrayed mainly through allusion and unspoken realisations, which went over my head when I myself watched the film as a child, but feel quite well done in adulthood. Crossroads is, from the very beginning, Britney’s movie: She came up with the concept of the story, and worked in collaboration with Rhimes over the script. In a featurette about the making of the film, producer Ann Carli mentions how important it was to Britney that the film took girls seriously, that she didn’t want a film that “talked down to [her] peers.” This includes covering issues that are a reality for so many teens. Yet, it wasn’t all quite so serious: what the film does best is it’s exploration and embrace of female friendship.
From Heathers (1989) to Mean Girls (2004), throughout the 90s and 2000s, female friendship on screen was often seen as catty or insidious: on TV, Brooke and Peyton in One Tree Hill (2003-2012) constantly called each other bitches, and each week we would wonder if “best friends” Blair and Serena in Gossip Girl (2007-2012) actually liked each other or not. Beyond such cattiness, even friendship films that appear wholesome such as Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging (2008)and Wild Child (2008) center on the pursuit of a guy which results in the best friends breaking up in the process. Crossroads works differently. The road trip itself is a reunion for Mimi, Kit and Lucy, who were best friends as kids but grew apart in high school. And although they fight out of frustration while waiting for the guy driving them, Ben (Anson Mount) to find a tow-truck in the Louisiana sun, it’s never enough for one of them to leave. On the road, any hard feelings from high school are quickly forgotten, and when tragedy strikes, they are there for each other. Typically, Lucy does fall in love with the handsome, mysterious and originally thought to be dangerous Ben, but this romantic narrative is not at odds with that of her friends: no one is accused of being jealous, for example. Sure, Lucy basically steals Mimi’s recording contract dreams by proving to be the better and more confident singer (this is Britney Spears, we are talking about. If anyone is the singer, it’s her), but is there a more beautiful moment than of three friends on the open road laughing and singing along to Shania Twain and Cheryl Crow at full-belt? It’s a hold your friends close movie. It’s a breaking free, together, movie.
For both Mimi and Lucy, singing becomes a form of expression, and a symbol of individual freedom. For Mimi, it is a chance to get out of her town, to achieve her dream of reaching the Pacific Ocean, and find a better life for herself. For Lucy, it is a way to make her voice be heard, and make her own decisions.
The film’s main single, ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,’ starts out as a poem written by Lucy on the road. Finally away from her controlling Dad (Dan Ackroyd), and making choices for herself, the words speak to the in-betweenness of coming of age, and the desire for the space to explore who it is you’re becoming. Lucy no longer wants to live a sheltered life. At the same time, as someone who had grown up in the public eye, Britney was dealing with the same issues. At 20 years old, the song and the film were an outlet for Britney to call the shots, and demonstrate that there is more to her than people realise. The song was also a single on her third studio album, Britney. Self titled and credited as co-writer on six songs, the album — and film — was Britney’s way of re-introducing herself, with a more adult sound. ‘I’m Not a Girl’ itself, while not written by Britney, is a song that is very personal to her, and while filming the scene where she sings the song, she started crying: “I love this song … because I can totally relate.”
For some, the film becomes just an extended music video (the film’s director Tamra Davis was a prolific music video director prior to Crossroads). But even so, Crossroads is a visual representation of what the song is about, and contributes to its meaning. Although it may have taken some until news about Britney’s conservatorship to truly understand a song like ‘Lucky’ Crossroads clearly encapsulates the message.
In her own words, Britney describes the song:
“You’re not a girl, you’re not a woman, you’re just figuring yourself out: what you wanna accomplish in life, and what you wanna do … She’s basically saying ‘Just give me some time,’ … ‘no matter what, I’m always gonna be ok. I’m gonna find it within myself, my inner strength, and I’ll be ok.’
‘It’s ok, girls, to have those days where you just cry, and nothing’s going right, you don’t feel good about yourself, because we all go through it.’ The bottom line [is to] keep your friends around you, it’s all ok.”
It is therefore undeniable that the film and the song both speak to who she is as a person, or at least, a part of herself she wanted to share with the world. Control has always been important to Britney. It comes up all the time in her songs, and interviews throughout this time. Not only control for herself, but to imbue the importance of girls having control to her fans, and how they can get it. It is well discussed that for the iconic ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ music video, the uniform and high school setting was Britney’s idea. In Crossroads, Lucy, Kit and Mimi’s roadtrip represents them all taking control of their own lives, which is what makes everything we hear about Britney’s conservatorship so heartbreaking. Although I never meant to make this piece about the conservatorship, even looking in hindsight, it is always there, hanging overhead. In their investigative article about Britney’s situation for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino and Ronan Farrow also bring up the importance of control in Britney’s career: “And, all along, as her fans have noticed, she has been singing songs that she didn’t write but which nonetheless seem to speak directly to her situation: my loneliness is killing me; I’m a slave for you; I’m not a girl, not yet a woman; you want a piece of me.” It has always been there. The ongoing battle over Britney’s conservatorship, and the #FreeBritney movement means we are all re-evaluating how we, both personally, and the media, treated Britney, especially during the height of her fame. This is why it has been so important to me that we revisit Crossroads, a film which is largely forgotten, hard to come by, and plagued by sexist and gross reviews. Through the film and Britney’s accompanying singles, audiences can learn something about the importance of control, not only for young girls, but for ourselves: the importance of autonomy and using your voice. Long before her conservatorship, this was Britney’s message that we failed to understand, but must not forget. We owe it to Crossroads. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to Britney.
In July, Grow Up hosted an Instagram Live discussing Crossroads with Claire and culture writer and music video scholar Sydney Urbanek. You can view the talk on the Grow Up Instagram page here.