Wednesday, June 19, 2013

But I'm a Cheerleader - 1999

"But I'm a Cheerleader" - 1999
Dir. by Jamie Babbitt - 1 hr. 25 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

When I watched "But I'm a Cheerleader" years ago, when it first came out, I remember that it had a lot of good things going for it.  At that point in time, the idea of a faith-based sexual-orientation rehab program sounded so ridiculous that it was nearly unbelievable, and thus a perfect basis for a comedy.  Secondly, Natasha Lyonne was turning in good work (the first "American Pie" movie and "Slums of Beverly Hills" had been recently released) that was getting her some attention.  Plus, the idea of Lyonne and Clea DuVall in a romantic story had a certain amount of appeal.  In the years since, it's become apparent to me that there are people who genuinely believe that you can pray gay away, which makes this premise even better for comedy.

Megan (Lyonne) is a straight-laced good-girl.  She's a cheerleader, has a boyfriend on the football team, and never gets into trouble.  Even though she doesn't seem to understand, those around her think that she's got a more-than-friends attraction to the women around her.  Her friends, family, and boyfriend stage an intervention for her, and she's sent off to True Directions, where she will be rehabilitated from her unnatural desires.  The director of the program, Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), has developed a five-step program that will help these young lesbians and gays to accept their proper roles in society.  While at the program, Megan meets Graham (DuVall), who start off rocky and gradually warm up to each other, in defiance of Mary and True Directions.

"But I'm a Cheerleader" is highly critical of the idea of being able to change who someone is attracted to.  True Directions is presented as a misguided attempt to shoehorn people into existing slots, in the futile hope that societal normalcy can be gained.  The basic argument is that love isn't wrong between two consenting adults, and that trying to shame someone's sexuality is far more damaging than just letting people be themselves.  The false life that the characters are striving for is reflected in the set and costume design in this film; candy colors dominate, and pink and blue are the two colors most everything is divided into.  Even Lyonne's and Moriarty's hair reflects this - they're both sporting elaborate do's that come from the 1950s, which is the era that a program like True Directions is trying to throw everyone back to.

The movie has gained some credibility over the years, since the emergence of rehab stories as it's own genre of TV and fiction (although that usually deals with drug addiction, as that's a bit safer and less personal topic to explore rehab through) over the past decade.  By now, it's almost accepted that if you have a problem, you get shipped off for a month or two to deal with it, but that doesn't really bear any resemblance to real life.  Most people don't have health coverage that would fund such a working vacation, nor jobs that would allow someone to put everything on pause to examine and correct their own behavior.  In "But I'm a Cheerleader," there are at least a couple of passing mentions of the price of the program, which is another angle of criticism aimed at these programs.  Offering nonsensical, ineffective solutions at an exorbitant price is profiteering, and takes advantage of desperate, misguided, yet still concerned families who just don't know what the right thing is to do.  At that point, the question becomes exactly what the goals of these programs are: helping or profiting?

The actors universally do a good job, having fun with their roles.  A lot of the roles are broad stereotypes of different kinds of gay people (which makes sense, considering the deliberately artificial tone and look of the film), but there's a great moment where one of the girls in the program, Jan (Katrina Phillips), admits that she's not actually gay, even though she likes softball and isn't pretty.  There are a number of smaller roles filled out by familiar actors (like Richard Moll, RuPaul, and Wesley Mann, plus a brief Julie Delpy sighting) that are fun, as well.  The entire package ends up looking like a piece of fluff, but with a meaningful center.  That meaning comes in embracing who you are, which is summed up nicely towards the end.  Although being a cheerleader is something that might be cause for mockery in certain circles, it's the manner that Megan knows how to express herself in, and it's the way that she chooses to plea for Graham to follow her heart.  It might seem awkward, or weird, but it's Megan embracing herself and who she is, and comes off like the character growing into a comfort level with herself, which isn't a bad character arc at all.

3 / 5 - TV

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