Dir Tamra Davis. US 2002. 95 min.

Naive and amateurish in both the positive and negative sense of these terms, Crossroads, Britney Spears' feature screen debut, provides a decent showcase for the pop icon and youth symbol, who seems to be everywhere this month. As a coming of age yarn, this road melodrama recycles all the cliches and "characters" of youth movies of the past half a century, serving as a kind of an updated version of Where The Boys Are (which showcased singer Connie Francis) or Gidget (with Sandra Dee). At the very least, Crossroads is not the embarrassing debacle that Mariah Carey's big-screen debut, Glitter, was. A media blitz, with Spears on the cover of magazines, talk shows, radio programs, not to speak of the movie's hit song, "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," and PG-13 rating, should help this Paramount/MTV release reach its primary target audience of teenage girls (though boys may not like it so much), resulting in mid-range numbers. Playing in 2380 locations, Crossroads yielded about $17m during the four-day President's Weekend.

The publicity machine behind Spears seems to know no boundaries--or scruples. Along with the movie, there are two "books" available from Scholastic: a novelisation of Crossroads, as well as a diary of the singer's experiences and lessons while making the movie. Decorating numerous cover magazines and billboards, the singing diva is also doing the rounds of all the national TV talk shows.

Though it's hard to tell whether Spears can act (a function of the bland, innocuous screenplay), as a screen personality, she comes across as peppy, cheerful, and squeaky-clean, in the manner of Sandra Dee in her Gidget, Imitation Of Life, and A Summer Place movies (made four decades ago!), though decidedly lacking the cutesy elements of Dee, who never made the transition into adult actress. Spears' sweet-natured persona, combined with an overt sex image that's appealing without being too aggressive may prove to be what pre-teen and teen girls (and, of course, their parents and educators) wish to idolise. At a crucial age, 20, Spears could easily translate her current clean look into a more glamorous nymphet in future outings.

Framed as a story of female camaraderie, Crossroads begins with three childhood friends talking about their innermost dreams, and vowing to remain loyal to each other against all odds. The story then jumps ahead to eight years later, to find Lucy (Spears), Kit (Saldana) and Mimi (Manning) struggling with typical growing pains, just when society expects them to cross into mature adulthood.

The first obstacle for the audience to overcome is the notion of Spears as a virginal valedictorian. Defying credibility--and statistics that most American teenagers experience their first sexual encounter by the age of 16, the film still clings to the notion of doing it right - not sex, but lovemaking that's passionate, romantic, and heartfelt - and with the right man. Hence, audiences wait and wait until Spears finally grants her first meaningful kiss to an older guy, Ben (Mount), who at first functions as the driver of the old Buick convertible that's taking the girls to an audition in La-La land.

The script, credited to Shonda Rhimes, feels as if it were devised, or rather manufactured, by a teenager herself, since it's a chronicle of trials, tribulations, and a few joys. It doesn't help that all three girls are broad types with no shading. Lucy is the sensitive girl, who likes and respects her dad (Aykroyd, who could have played the part in his sleep), a single, overprotective parent, but she can't accept his choice for her to be a doctor. Lucy's yearning is to reunite with her estranged mother, Caroline (Sex And The City's Cattrall), who cut her ties with Lucy for the sake of her new family in Arizona.

Kit is the homecoming queen, who wants to be a bridal Barbie and whose mother couldn't accept the fact that she was more beautiful than her. Her one concern is to reunite with her boyfriend-fiancee in Los Angeles. Mimi is the strong, independent girl, whose life has been the toughest. Burdened with an unplanned pregnancy, she's nonetheless determined to keep her baby at all costs.

Crossroads makes a few concessions to reality, though even these notions are presented as cliches and are handled in haphazard manner. Hence, Mimi is pregnant, but it's not clear up to the very end who's the father. Lucy is raised by a caring father, whose domineering attitude, we are meant to understand, had chased his wife away. An embarrassing "reunion" scene between Lucy and her inexplicably cold, distant mother is poorly treated and totally out of line with the rest of the yarn.

There's nothing new in wishing for a performer like Spears, who has already established herself in one branch of the entertainment business, pop music, to branch out into another, Hollywood. Moreover, considering the decline of the musical genre over the past two decades (Moulin Rouge is the only musical to be nominated for Best Picture since Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, in 1979), partly due to the fact that there aren't many performers who can act/sing/dance, Spears should be encouraged to pursue a screen career, provided that more respectable vehicles are written for her.

Indeed, some very young viewers may get a kick out of watching a bright young star on the rise, the blossoming of Spears. That's clearly the case in the film, when Mimi, the seemingly singing talent of the three, gets stage fright at a karaoke country club, and, suprise, Lucy is "forced" to take the stage and save Mimi's face. The songs in Crossroads are functional, but there are only three or four of them - more songs could have certainly alleviated the otherwise pedestrian film.

Tamra Davis is a potentially interesting director with an uneven record, having helmed Guncrazy, starring Drew Barrymore, but also Billy Madison, with Adam Sandler. Here, her work seems hampered not only by a inane script but by a low budget that allowed for rudimentary (but no more) production values. For a road movie, passing through Texas and Arizona, among other vistas, Crossroads lacks any visual style or pleasure.

Pro co: A Paramount Pictures and Zomba Films presentation, in association with MTV Films
US dist: Paramount
Exec prods: Clive Calder, Larry Rudolph, Johnny Wright, Van Toffler, David Gale
Prod: Ann Carli
Scr: Shonda Rhimes
Cinematographer: Eric Edwards
Prod des: Waldemar Kalinowski
Ed: Melissa Kent
Music: Trevor Jones
Main cast: Britney Spears, Anson Mount, Zoe Saldana, Taryn Manning, Kim Cattrall, Dan Aykroyd