Welcome to True Directions a rehabilitation camp for the homosexually-inclined. The latest patient to talk through its doors is 17-year-old Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a popular high school cheerleader. An “A” student, model daughter, and girlfriend to the football team captain, Megan has lately begun to worry her family and friends. They’ve noticed her “odd” behaviors: she doesn’t enjoy kissing her boyfriend, her locker is adorned with swimsuit-issue pin-ups, a Melissa Etheridge poster hangs on her wall, and she likes tofu. So Megan’s parents, Peter (Bud Cort) and Nancy (Mink Stole), pack their daughter’s bags and send her off to homo rehab in hopes that she can be transformed into a happy, normal heterosexual.
This is the absurd beginning of Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, an audience favorite on this year’s film festival circuit, including the San Francisco and Los Angeles gay and lesbian film festivals. But while gay viewers have embraced the film, the national critics have been less than kind. With the exception of Roger Ebert, who gave it a “thumbs up,” the reviews have been mixed. Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times writes that Cheerleader “belongs to that growing category of film best described as ‘It Would Have Made a Great Sketch on Saturday Night Live or Mad TV’.” Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Glieberman concurs, giving the film an F and dismissing it as a “poisonously smug, one-joke indie comedy.”
As a comedy, Cheerleader is certainly a disappointment. Despite its terrific premise, Brian Wayne Peterson’s script (from a story by Babbit) is simply not funny or clever enough. Babbit’s direction is earnest, but lacks the sharp comic style of John Waters or Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election). Yet, the positive response the film is generating from its queer audiences most likely has do with what Babbit and Peterson are saying about gender and sexuality rather than the way in which they say it. Cheerleader exposes gender and sexual desire as social performances learned over time. Once Megan takes the first step in the True Directions protocol by admitting, “I’m a homo!”, she joins the other straights-in-training who are trying to think, look, and act “normal.” Though behaving like proper girls and boys has little effect on Megan and the other patients, they still pretend that they are actually heading down the path to heterosexuality.
Unfortunately, the comedy paving that illusory path lacks an edge. The jokes about the five-step rehabilitation program are strained. The guys learn to engage in stereotypical manly behavior, like learning to fix a car, throw a football, and play army. The women spend most of their time boning up on their domestic skills, like vacuuming the floor and taking care of babies. And so, the characters are reduced to a collection of gay and lesbian stereotypes, playing at being heterosexual stereotypes. Whether these are intentional or funny are two different and complicated questions. In Cheerleader, the fine line between laughing with and laughing at a butch lesbian with a hairy upper lip or a gay Jewish boy who can’t catch a football becomes uncomfortably blurry. The humor is simply too broad and consequently, the film’s satire is lost. Even Rachel Kamerman’s stylized production design, which plays off traditional gendering by color (pink is for girls and blue is for boys), is too obvious.
Equally ineffective is the character of Mary Brown, the camp’s program director (nicely played by Cathy Moriarty). She is True Directions’ Nurse Ratched, a sadistic bully who is committed to turning around not only her patients, but also her own son, Rock (the hunky Eddie Cibrian, in a fine comic turn), who would rather sip his orange juice through a straw than chug it. But it’s never exactly clear what motivates Mary to convert gay and lesbian teenagers. Her son? Ideology? Something in her own past? Some additional information about her would help us understand why she approaches the rehabilitation process with such a vindictive attitude. The same goes for the ex-gay male counselor Mike, played by a dragless RuPaul Charles, who seems to lose his comic timing when he’s not in a dress.
Instead of the True Directions staff converting Megan to heterosexuality, their deprogramming program has an adverse effect and accelerates her “coming out” process. She falls in love with fellow camper Graham (Clea DuVall), who is only in rehab to appease her hateful father. The rebellious Graham knows deep down that she is a lesbian and that there is nothing wrong with it. Lyonne and DuVall rise above the material, bringing intensity and warmth to their characters’ relationship. Megan and Graham’s mutual profession of love is the most honest moment in the film, underlining the pro-gay message that the film’s comic elements fail to deliver: your sexual orientation is a natural and healthy part of who you are.
At its best, during such sincere moments (and some comic ones), the film shows the pleasures of desire while making its political points. For instance, Babbit shoots Megan’s fantasy about the other cheerleaders in her squad, shot in slow motion, the same technique used to objectify women in all those teen pix about boys trying to get laid. And for the most part, Babbit should be commended for taking a comic approach. While studios churn out “gay” comedies like In and Out and The Birdcage for mass (i.e., heterosexual) audiences, independent filmmakers treat homosexuality as a serious subject. Although Cheerleader has its problems, it may revive the trend of independent gay and lesbian comedies that began in early/mid-1990’s with Go Fish and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love.