Wayback Wednesday: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

It laughs in the face of homophobes and says, “here’s how stupid you sound and look.”

Every once in a while I’ll watch an old movie for the first time and think to myself, “wow, this is such a cool, smart, and unique piece of work. I wish I had discovered this earlier in life and been able to spend years watching it over and over again.” I had that experience the first time I watched movies like, Charade (1963), 9 to 5 (1980), and Scream (1996), just to name a few. By the way, check out the reviews for those movies, here, here, and here. I experienced that feeling once again while watching the LGBT+ cult classic, But I’m a Cheerleader (1999). A campy, satirical take on gender roles filled with biting wit and a lovable romance? If I had known about this movie 10 years ago, you can bet your butt I would have rented it from Blockbuster multiple times! Whoa, sidenote, I high-key miss Blockbuster. Ah, the good old days when Friday nights were spent arguing with your family in a video store about what the family movie would be. Good times.

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 9.39.00 PM
Credit: imdb.com / Lions Gate Films

But I’m a Cheerleader follows Megan, a high school cheerleader coming to grips with the face that she’s a lesbian. Concerned that she’s different and doesn’t fit in, Megan’s straight-laced parents send her to True Directions, a conversion camp intended to transform her into a heterosexual. Mary Brown, the strict founder of True Directions attempts to “rehabilitate” Megan, but during her stay Megan only becomes more accepting and sure of who she truly is.

Now, I know what you must be thinking: “Wait, how can a movie about conversion “therapy” be one of the most beloved LGBT+ cult classics of all time?” Trust me. Despite the grim premise, rest assured that everything about But I’m a Cheerleader is brilliantly tongue in cheek. On everything from religion, to gay stereotypes, to “traditional American values,” the movie tackles it all with an unwavering satirical tone that is masterful to watch. The way that But I’m a Cheerleader holds up a mirror to the ridiculousness of conversion and blatantly mocks its inherent stupidity is undoubtedly what makes it such an endearing and enjoyable movie. It’s SO GOOD at getting across its central message of shedding antiquated gender roles and expectations, and the glorious freedom of living your authentic life. In both writing and direction, But I’m a Cheerleader feels a lot like a John Waters movie, a common critique when the movie was first released. Like many of the legendary director’s movies, But I’m a Cheerleader wasn’t appreciated when it was first released, but has since received appropriate praise through cult status.

The influence Waters has on writer / director Jamie Babbit’s feature-length debut is clear as day. Like Hairspray (1988) or Serial Mom (1994), But I’m a Cheerleader subverts what is considered perfect, or the norm, and shows how fun, satisfying, and bold life can be when you live your truest self. Speaking of bold, can we talk about this movie’s phenomenal production design and costuming? Everything is so stylistic and unique! Honestly, it looks like Waters, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson all wanted to do the design themselves, and compromised by each adding their own flair. In addition to stunning scenery, one of But I’m a Cheerleader’s strongest elements is its visual storytelling. Filled with clever visuals and references, Babbit’s use of showing over telling is flawless. It never fails to amaze me when movies are able to tell so much about their characters, or forward the story, using nothing but some well-placed props or an insightfully-decorated set. Amazed! Every time!

That great use of showing over telling reminds me of another cult classic, Wet Hot American Summer (2001). By the way, check out the reviews for that movie, here. Like Wet Hot American Summer, But I’m a Cheerleader also had a minuscule $1 million budget. Which, in my opinion, they spent every penny of wisely. Sure, the movie doesn’t LOOK super expensive, but clearly they spent the money on over the top set pieces and a stellar cast which is exactly what I would have done.

As Megan, Natasha Lyonne brings just as much charm and fire to the role as she does her others. Lyonne is exactly the type of lead you’d want for a coming-of-age project like But I’m a Cheerleader. She’s spunky and determined, but still allows her character to be vulnerable and have room for growth. Plus, her chemistry with Clea Duvall, who plays her love interest, Graham, is unreal. I have no idea where Clea Duvall has been all my life, but trust and believe that I will be watching as many of her movies as I can get my hands on. I loved watching the love story between Megan and Graham develop from puppy love to a full-on epic romance. Just saying, I’d totally be down to see them in a sequel. Oooh, maybe one where they go to live in the suburbs? That could be fun!

The supporting cast is equally as much fun. Every one of the teen “campers” are hysterical to watch, each one wonderful at landing witty one-liners, and pulling off phenomenal physical comedy. Much like the storytelling, so much of the comedy in But I’m a Cheerleader is visual. Definitely make sure you’re giving this movie your full attention. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I mean, how could you with supporting actors like Cathy Moriarty and RuPaul? I swear to God, I could watch Moriarty play an uptight, shrill, bitchy villain, and RuPaul play an aggressively masculine sports coach, for hours. HOURS I tell you!

But I’m a Cheerleader is a short story that’s really fast-moving. Which is shocking, because it seems to address and explore so many different issues in such a short amount of time. I love that despite an hour and a half runtime, the movie manages to tell a moving story full of comedy, while also breaking down gender roles and shattering heteronormativity. When a movie is able to balance great storytelling while subtly reinforcing a powerful message of love and acceptance, that’s just incredible. I think those are my absolute favourite kinds of movies: ones that keep you laughing the whole time, but also thinking about what’s making you laugh as well. Seriously, the way this movie ridicules and mocks the aggressively conservative, extremely homophobic, backwards-thinking community, is amazing.

There’s something so satisfying about But I’m a Cheerleader. It’s a fiery, fabulous little movie that only affirms how spectacular, beautiful, and empowering true love and self-acceptance are. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is seeking out more movies about, starring, and made by the LGBT+ community, or anyone who is just a fan of biting, satirical comedies. Or, simply anyone who wants to see a movie about good triumphing over evil. And hey, who isn’t down to see a story of love conquering hate? I know I always am!

Have you seen But I’m a Cheerleader?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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