but i'm a cheerleader

1999

Directed: Jamie Babbit
Written: Jamie Babbit and Brian Wayne Petersen

How does one make a good film about bad taste? John Waters managed it for years with such classics as Polyester, Hairspray and my all time favourite Waters film, Cry Baby.

But I'm A Cheerleader has all the calling cards of a Waters film: the pastiche, the humour, the melodrama, but tends also towards the slapstick and gross-out humour that is so popular in the teen film market. It is perfectly placed as a great film homage, but stands a little shakily on its own merits.

But I'm A Cheerleader was a festival favourite first time around (first time I saw the film was a rough cut that had completely different music). After a re-edit it managed to snag a distributor and achieved worldwide noteriety, riding somewhat on the back of Natasha Lyonne's appearances in the hit American Pie series and Clea Duvall's important turn as a compulsive liar in Girl, Interrupted. Apart from anything else, Lyonne and Duvall have great chemistry, even in their promo material.

Megan (Lyonne) is an all-American perfect girl. She's a cheerleader, dates the captain of the football team and has the life that any teenage girl dreams of. But Megan also has pictures of girls in her locker, a poster of Melissa Etheridge on her wall and is a vegetarian—all of which add up to only one conclusion. Megan is gay! Or at least her family and friends think so, which leads to an intervention and enrolment in "True Directions", a homo-rehab camp designed to reinforce gender roles and produce good, straight members of society.

"True Directions" is camp in every sense of the word. Camp Director Mary J Brown (Cathy Moriarity) sets the flamboyant tone from her first scenes and her performance never lets up. She's accompanied by RuPaul - out of drag but still SO gay - as assistant camp director Mike who is nothing short of obsessed with the gay sex he isn't having. The buildings are painted in bright pink and blue, as are the costumes the participants are required to wear, and the whole thing has the feel of a cartoon. In a way, the characters have that two-dimensional feel of cartoons as well.

Megan arrives to meet her fellow campers, which includes Graham (the gorgeous Clea Duvall), a street-smart dyke who just wants to endure the camp, go to college and continue her silver-spoon existence being a lesbian right under her unsuspecting parents' noses. Needless to say, all "True Directions" does for Megan is open up her true path in life, and when she falls in love with Graham it changes everything.

While the leads are excellent in their roles, some of the supporting characters really do their best to steal this movie from under them. New Zealander Melanie Lynskey, after nearly snatching Ever After from Drew Barrymore, pulls off her scenes here with a delightful smugness that just makes you want to cheer for and strangle her at the same time. Katharine Towne is a scream as Sinead, the goth-wannabe with a serious crush on Graham and an overly-fond attitude towards her electroshock therapy. Eddie Cibrian, so macho as a firefighter on Third Watch, is almost too convincing as Mary Brown's gay son Rock. His character was written as a walking cliché and he pulled everything he could (ahem) out of the role. Watch also for a priceless cameo from eighties teen princess Ione Skye (Say Anything).

The film doesn't play everything for laughs. The sex scene between Graham and Megan is surprisingly tender and I actually found the interactions between the "True Directions" inmates and their parents quite harrowing at times, particular Graham's dealings with her angry, rich father who threatens to cut off her entire future if she doesn't "get this gay thing out or her system". Having all this play against the disturbingly colourful backgrounds gets rather surreal. You get a sense at times of a one-laugh joke having been carried too far, but then the film manages to right itself and continue on its merry way.

It's all very heartwarming, but at times a little empty and awkward, like the film has so many messages and doesn't know which ones it really wants to deliver. The ones that get through are perfectly fine, but I don't think involving the parents and trying to ram home that all straight people hate homosexuals and want them to get over it really did the film any favours. These moments propelled the film from satire into unsuccessful social commentary. The last-ditch attempt to dispel this illusion with Megan's parents attending the PFLAG meeting scene just feels tacked on and doesn't do anything to help.

However hilarious, there is a militant "us against them" undertone to the movie that feels a little troubling by the end. The entire "life re-enactment" of straight sex was nothing short of icky. A little more common ground found between gay and straight might have been nice. Instead of the feeling that Megan and Graham are being forced to run away from the world to be in love, wouldn't it have been nice to have their reward for being brave be that unbeknownst to them they are actually running towards the world where it is possible to find a place of tolerance and acceptance?

That is however just a minor, possibly over-intellectualised quibble with a film whose enjoyment factor is so high. For a fun night in with popcorn, But I'm a Cheerleader is difficult to beat. For camp hilarity, watch it perhaps in conjunction with Moriarty's Soapdish or the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. be original, maybe break the ice and watch it with your friends and family just before you tell them you're gay?

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com