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Who was it that gave popular singers carte blanche to act in films? Well, we’re neck-deep in it now — but just because they excel at one or two of the performing arts doesn’t mean they can all be Will Smiths.

Take Mariah Carey, for example, and her recent Glittering spiral into film flopdom, and Madonna’s hit-and-miss toe-dipping into the Hollywood abyss. Move over, girls, because ubiquitous Britney (teen-pop-superheroine) Spears is following suit. This 20-year-old spokesprincess for Pepsi is able to hypnotize legions of young girls (and “I’m a Slave 4 U, Britney!” boys) with carefully choreographed bubble-gum accessibility and is unquestionably one of the, if not the, most charismatic and talented pop singer of the moment. The question is: Does this pop singer-entertainer have what it takes to captivate film audiences?

The answer is Crossroads, a coming-of-age flick about three young girlfriends in Georgia, estranged through the pressures and personality changes of adolescence, only to find themselves graduated from high school and in the car of a stranger, chasing their lost friendship and forgotten dreams to the West Coast.

Ahem. But, let’s just cut to the chase and look at Crossroads for what it really is: a marketing stratagem. To begin with, Britney’s already got a built-in, primarily female teenybopper audience, so the obvious choice is to direct the film to what interests them. In this light, Crossroads is just left of brilliant.

After the three 10-year-old girls have buried their dreams in a box and promised to be friends forever, time jumps to the end of high school where we meet three high-school archetypes: trailer-trash Mimi (Taryn Manning), bad-attitude but popular Kit (Zoe Saldana) and our very own Britney as nerdy valedictorian Lucy, introduced to the screen in her room, in her underwear, singing and dancing to Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” — a familiar scenario just about any young girl can relate to.

The girls’ ancient pact included digging up their box at midnight on the night of their high-school graduation, but only Mimi seems to be interested in keeping the promise, in spite of a general distaste for one another’s high-school status. However, dissatisfaction and boredom win out, and Kit and Lucy show up for the unburial as well, reigniting their idealistic dreams and reasons to ride with Mimi and her new friend, Ben (Anson Mount), out West.

Instead of the weight of the film being left strictly on Spears’ shoulders, she’s surrounded by a sturdy, yet relatively unknown, ensemble cast, along with a couple of supporting familiar faces — Dan Aykroyd as Lucy’s dad and Kim Cattrall as her wayward mom. Manning, Saldana and Mount’s low profiles and substantial (but not overbearing) acting abilities complement Spears’ first role — very necessary considering Spears only had a week of formal acting training.

The ensemble has a harmonious rapport that grumbles, purrs and shifts like the ’73 Buick Skylark they’re riding in. Manning always looks as if she’s just stepped out of a trailer park; Saldana switches from bitch to best friend worthily; Mount’s Marlboro-Man good looks and subtle, sweet acting would sweep any young girl off her good sense; and Spears’ big Bambi brown eyes and blinding smile help to glide her naive character through this girl-fun trip. Then all of the above are plugged into a romantic theme that can’t lose, a trope we Americans are mysteriously drawn to like spawning salmon: that classic On the Road lure of adventure, fortune and purpose that lies somewhere out West, young man.

The trouble comes when Britney sings, like in the impromptu karaoke contest that pops up out of the blue to help pay for Buick repairs. Spears doesn’t even try (or doesn’t know how) to stay in character and sings like the pop superstar that she is. And in the last 10 minutes or so, the previously engaging dialogue and acting take a nosedive, as if everybody got tired and wanted to go home. Weird.

Overall, Britney does OK, and despite her spectacular presence, Crossroads takes on a life of its own as a teen dream ride with a touch of sex and bad elements. Britney possesses a down-to-earth quality that’s undoubtedly part of her appeal and permeates any of her endeavors. She came up with the basic plot for this film, keeping her own interests in mind along with her role-model stature for her fans — and as far as they’re concerned, I’d say Crossroads is a mission accomplished.

Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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