Roger Ebert Home

Our Opinion of Crossroads Hasn’t Changed, Our Feelings About Britney Spears Have

A few months ago, Britney Spears went viral. That’s not new for the pop star, who’s been famous since 1998, when her first single “...Baby One More Time” went to No. 1. But this time, it wasn’t because of her music or a public appearance. It was because she was acting.

Although the part eventually went to Rachel McAdams, Spears auditioned to play Allie in “The Notebook.” Every successful movie has plenty of stories of the people who didn’t get cast, creating a nearly endless permutation of “What if?” scenarios of how the film might have been with other actors, but when I watched Spears’ tape, two thoughts flew through my head simultaneously: (1) She’s not bad, but not that great; and (2) I’m so glad this video wasn’t all over the internet in 2004 when the film came out. Everyone would have been a lot meaner about it back then. If you have any doubt, look at how the world treated the actual movie she made during the time.

Musicians do not have a great track record of acting in films. For every David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” you’ve also got a ton of underwhelming Elvis Presley pictures. Björk stunned in “Dancer in the Dark,” but Mariah Carey was horribly awkward in “Glitter.” Pop stars are especially roasted when they try to show off their thespian chops. Nobody wants to revisit Taylor Swift in “Valentine’s Day.” Madonna’s stumbles in “Shanghai Surprise” and “Evita” are well documented. You may not remember, but there was a Hannah Montana movie. Especially in the early 2000s, critics viewed these films with disdain: Who did these singers think they are trying to pretend to be serious actors? The knives were out before the opening credits.

At the epicenter of this period is “Crossroads.” A teen road film about buddies who used to be BFFs when they were girls, the movie got snotty reviews and a plethora of Golden Raspberry nominations. (Spears “won” Worst Actress.) In the ensuing 22 years, the conversation around the film has shifted. “Crossroads” was hard to find for a while, but it’s now available for rental, and it arrives on Netflix today, February 15th, marking the first time it has been available on a subscription streaming service. Aging millennials will be interested in it for nostalgic reasons, while younger viewers may be curious to discover what all the fuss was about back in 2002. The latter group may be astonished by what they find: A totally disposable, utterly harmless comedy-drama meant to be a star vehicle. It’s been a long journey, but “Crossroads” may finally be on its way to being properly judged instead of roundly mocked.

The Britney Spears of the early aughts was at the zenith of her celebrity. On the heels of two blockbuster albums, she returned in 2001 with Britney, which wasn’t quite as white-hot but showed Spears, as she was nearing 20, attempting to amplify her sexuality on its slinky, provocative first single “I’m a Slave 4U.” (Key lyrics: “All you people look at me like I’m a little girl / Well, did you ever think it’d be okay for me to step into this world?”) This was also the year she performed with a snake on the MTV Video Music Awards and was deep into a relationship with fellow rising pop star Justin Timberlake. It was clear she was going to be around for a while.

What was also apparent was that she wanted to expand her empire beyond music. With MTV excited about being in the Spears business, she met with a pre-“Grey's Anatomy” Shonda Rhimes, pitching the writer an idea for a film. “I talked to [Rhimes] and told her what I wanted the movie to be about, and she elaborated on it,” Spears said in 2001. “It was my little project. When you do a movie, I think you have to be really passionate about it. I was having a lot of offers, but this is something my heart was into.”

The film, which was originally going to be called “What Are Friends For,” starred Spears as Lucy, the sweetheart valedictorian of her high school who loves Madonna and hasn’t had sex yet. Her pals Kit (Zoe Saldana) and Mimi (Taryn Manning) accompany her on a road trip to dig up a time capsule they buried when they were kids. (Lucy is also in search of her estranged mother.) Along the way, there are cute boys, impromptu musical numbers and other sorts of escapades you’d expect from a movie like this. 

Years later, the film’s director, Tamra Davis (who had previously made “Happy Gilmore”), would take aim at the male critics who dismissed “Crossroads.” “Bedroom culture exists in there because you can dance to your favorite songs on your bed and you can go on the internet and talk about your loves, and that door is usually closed to men,” she said last year. “And we let you in to see our personal lives. For you to come in there and criticize us, I just think, shame on you to criticize girl culture.”

To be sure, some of the male reviewers adopted a paternal, tsk-tsk tone in their negative reviews. (The Baltimore Sun’s Chris Kaltenbach opened with “‘Crossroads’ wastes no time before establishing its credibility as a serious artistic endeavor. The first time we see star Britney Spears, she’s singing. Alone. In her underwear.”) But plenty of female critics also took the film to task, with USA Today’s Claudia Puig calling “Crossroads” “mindless drivel.” Davis has a point about how male critics sounded in their disapproval, but it wasn’t as if any gender was really coming to the movie’s defense.

A modest hit when it opened on February 15, 2002, “Crossroads” wasn’t “Purple Rain,” but it also wasn’t “Under the Cherry Moon.” But the movie’s perceived lack of artistry, coupled with Spears’ general overexposure, quickly had a domino effect. That year also saw her and Timberlake split up, with Timberlake turning that heartbreak into “Cry Me a River,” the dynamic single off his acclaimed first solo album, whose video featured a Spears lookalike who’s apparently cheating on him. Simultaneously, Timberlake bragged about taking Spears’ virginity in interviews, although when he sat down with Barbara Walters, he worked hard to make himself seem like the victim in their relationship. In the court of public opinion, Spears was definitely seen as the villain.

As for Spears herself, she spiraled, impulsively marrying her childhood friend Jason Alexander in Vegas. The marriage only lasted 55 hours, but that didn’t stop Alexander from going around blabbing about what the sex was like after the nuptials were annulled. Soon, Spears became a tabloid fixture, marrying Kevin Federline, divorcing Kevin Federline, behaving erratically — who could forget the shaved-head incident? — and seemingly becoming one more star who got devoured by celebrity. Her dad Jamie put her in a conservatorship, signaling to the world that his daughter was out of control. By the end of the decade, she was treated in the media as a joke, with the cheesy “Crossroads” suddenly the setup to a long, sad punchline.

As Spears’ hold on the zeitgeist faded, becoming more renowned for her chaotic, sometimes worrying Instagram posts than her music, her one and only film disappeared. Still, there were those beating the drum for “Crossroads.” In 2022, as part of a 20th-anniversary piece about the film, Davis said, “I’m still trying to get to the bottom of why” the movie wasn’t available on streaming or Blu-ray. “I rewatched it again recently in a theater in London, and it went over unbelievable. It still played so well. … I’d love people to see it now because you can see what an incredible talent [Spears] was.” 

The use of “was” is notable, suggesting that even Davis wondered if Spears’ best days were behind her. And indeed, to watch “Crossroads” now is to see a young star who hasn’t yet been beset with challenges both personally and professionally. Lucy is presented as someone so excited to go out there and see the world. The character is hungry for experience. In that same interview, Davis indicated it was a reflection of where Spears was at that moment. “Britney wanted to [re]shape her image,” Davis said. “She didn’t want the virgin image anymore, or [to be looked at as a] good girl. She really wanted to do a movie where she dealt with what it is to be a woman, and to go from this little girl to being a woman.”

But if all megawatt stars face a backlash, if they wait long enough, a backlash to the backlash will eventually emerge. And in recent years, a whole new way of looking at Britney Spears has come about. Between a growing anger from Spears’ fans about her cruel conservatorship — highlighted by The New York Times’ 2021 documentary “Framing Britney Spears” — and a cultural awakening to how terribly Timberlake treated her in public, she has gone from being harshly judged to being afforded a sympathy she was rarely granted in the past. With more societal awareness around addiction and mental illness, Spears has stopped being a laughingstock and become a cautionary tale — not to mention a reminder that people are going through all kinds of things of which we’re not aware. 

Last year, Spears came back in a major way. She published her memoir, The Woman in Me, which was a frank, honest account of her life, including discussing the abortion she’d had while dating Timberlake. The grown-up she’d longed to be while making “Crossroads” was evident on the page. (Speaking of the film, in the book, Spears admits that she tried Method acting to play Lucy, writing, “Some people do Method acting, but they’re usually aware of the fact that they’re doing it. But I didn’t have any separation at all. … That was pretty much the beginning and end of my acting career, and I was relieved. I imagine there are people in the acting field who have dealt with something like that, where they had trouble separating themselves from a character.”)

As part of the memoir’s release, fans were treated to a surprise: After being hard to track down for years, “Crossroads” was released in select theaters for a two-day special event that October. Davis had fruitlessly attempted to bring the film back to the world, but as she explained in a Q&A after one of the 2023 screenings, all it took “was one call from Britney. She wanted it re-released to promote her new book.” Why did Spears care so much about a movie that had left her disenfranchised about acting? “Clearly, this means something to her because she wanted this to be released with her book,” Davis offered. “I think she wants people to look back at her work and see it in a different way.”

I can’t in good conscience recommend you check out “Crossroads” on Netflix — although, at 94 minutes, it’s far shorter than far worse films such as “Argylle” — but although the movie hasn’t changed, it’s significantly different in 2024 than it was in 2002. Watching it now, we see a Britney Spears who’s so fresh-faced and hopeful, not aware of the sadness that’s coming. What is indisputably hokey or corny about her performance is, in light of her later travails, touched with a bit of poignance. She doesn’t seem so much like a bad actress as just someone who’s young and naive. There are worse things in the world.

The vitriol Spears and her movie inspired in 2002 was no doubt partly a byproduct of sexism — although it’s also worth pointing out that “Crossroads” opened a few years before poptimism began taking hold in music criticism, challenging the rigid notion that rock musicians were inherently more artistic than those shallow, pretty pop stars. But even a fair-minded person can acknowledge that the film is mediocre. Don’t seek out “Crossroads” to discover a misunderstood masterpiece — you’ll only be disappointed. 

But just like the time capsule Lucy and her friends seek, the movie now stands as an artifact of the past, a glimpse of how things once were for Spears. The film featured her big ballad “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” Like “Crossroads,” it’s not her finest moment, but it’s a sentiment she felt deeply. That may not make it great art, but as an expression of her true self, it’s hard not to be affected.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Sweet Dreams
Challengers
Disappear Completely
LaRoy, Texas
The Long Game
Sasquatch Sunset

Comments

comments powered by Disqus