Check the fabulous pictures of Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall in the recent cover story for Out magazine. These hip young film stars appear to have it all, though not in a traditional sense. To promote their participation in But I’m a Cheerleader, one of the few plainly lesbian movies to have even limited mainstream distribution this year, the magazine’s photo spread has them showing off new glamorous blond dos and tastefully luscious sexy outfits, posing seductively while chatting openly about their straightness and whatever deals they’ve been cutting with Hollywood in order to make interesting movies at the same time that they’re making a living. Ask anyone in the business: this is no small feat.
So far, the girls have enjoyed close-to-charmed careers, landing respectable-yet-attention-getting start-up roles Lyonne in The Slums of Beverly Hills and American Pie and DuVall in The Faculty and Girl, Interrupted—and, happily, they’re demonstrating healthy self-confidence and appropriate lack of respect for ancient industry rules for starlets, like “don’t leave the house without makeup,” or “don’t play a lesbian.” In fact, they’re just fine with their girl-on-girl action in Cheerleader; though, according to director Jamie Babbit, she agreed to tone down the sex scene via judicious shadows and cuts, so the girls wouldn’t have to show too much of their naked bodies, yet still managed to create an erotic and emotional few moments in the midst of a lot of campy excess.
But what Babbit and her crew considered toned down was apparently not so for the MPAA ratings board, which famously at least in indie film circles slapped an NC-17 on the picture for its salaciousness. Compare But I’m a Cheerleader to popular R (or even PG-13) rated films featuring heterosexual teens having fairly explicit sex with each other and apple pies and it becomes clear that the idea of two girls having sex troubled the ratings people.
Truth be told, it probably didn’t help matters that the movie is a broad satire of anti- and ex-gay proselytizing, or that it suggests masturbation is a fine thing, that girls not only have desires, but can also articulate and act on them without men, or that it makes ruthless fun of the rigidity of straight culture all around. But Babbit’s tussle with the ratings board recalls that of Tamara Jenkins concerning her film, The Slums of Beverly Hills, in which Lyonne’s character discovers her straight sexuality. Girls enjoying or exploring sex of any variety seems to raise eyebrows.
But Cheerleader‘s sex scene, however brief, erotic, or charming, is hardly its focus. The film also features a terrific performance by DuVall and a refreshing, Citizen Ruth-like fairness in its satirical aim (the Christian Right gets theirs, but so do those folks who buy everything Rainbow cups, curtains, kitchen accessories to decorate their homes). It’s a great thing, then, that But I’m a Cheerleader challenges such hoary thinking. However, the film written by Brian Wayne Peterson and based on a story by Babbit also makes its points in some graceless, even reductive ways, and so, viewers are left with a dilemma: do they support a film with its heart in so many of the right places even though it’s not consistently excellent as art?
Billed rather clumsily by Lions Gate (who picked up the film after New Line dropped it at the last minute) as “A comedy of sexual disorientation,” But I’m a Cheerleader begins by introducing its titular hero, Megan (Lyonne), a small town high school cheerleader, whom you first see wearing her short orange skirt, leaping and splitting above the camera in lovely slow motion. Her parents (Mink Stole and Bud Cort) have become concerned that she’s not very interested in kissing her boyfriend, eats vegetarian and keeps a Melissa Etheridge poster on her bedroom wall. And so, they devise an intervention with the help of camp counselor Mike (RuPaul playing a man), and send her off to True Directions, an Exodus-style camp where she will learn how to be straight once and for all. At the camp, Megan meets Graham (DuVall), also in training to be a good wifey, but it’s clear from jump that they are meant to be together, at least as a way to end the film.
The camp is run by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), a neat-freak with a son, Rock (Eddie Cibrian), who spends his time raking leaves and posing with his chainsaw for camp counselor Jack (RuPaul in male drag) wearing skimpy short shorts. Mary tells herself that Rock is the bastion of straightness, and uses him as a model for righteousness when she’s teaching her charges, teens (among them, What Lies Beneath‘s Katharine Towne, Heavenly Creatures’ Melanie Lynskey, Dante Basco, Joel Michaely, and Richard Moll) whose self-concerned parents have sent them for a month-long regimen that resembles deprogramming. This process includes learning to abide by social conventions, like blue is for boys and pink for girls (production designer Rachel Kamerman’s bright color scheme is cartoony and after a while, tiring), men chop wood and check out car engines, and girls make tea and diaper babies. Needless to say, the kids don’t want (or need) to be so “healed,” though some have reasons, such as Graham, whose wealthy dick of a dad threatens (abetted by her silent mom) to cut her off unless she does the straight thing.
In order to survive, Graham is learning to do the closeted thing. During the day, she’s a darling diaperer, and at night, she leads the True Directions inmates on excursions to the local gay bar, Cocksuckers. Here the lights are low and the music is loud, and everyone can act out. And here you see what the film might have been without the spoofy expansiveness: a comic consideration of first love, namely, between Graham and Megan.
Their initial attempts to connect are tender, pleasurable, and awkward, like any teen romance. But instead, the film leans hard on its bubble-gummy look and broad send-ups of homophobes. These outsized jokes let everyone off the hook: no one who is phobic will have to see him- or herself in such caricatures. Babbit’s previous experience directing independent shorts, as well as episodes of the WB’s Popular and MTV’s Undressed shows that she has a savvy sense of style and politics. But Cheerleader, so clunky in its efforts not to offend (brought on by the censors or whoever) doesn’t communicate these strengths. Its most appreciative audience will likely be queer viewers (demonstrated already by the film’s success at queer film festivals) and girl viewers of any sexual persuasion. But the audience who might benefit most from watching it either won’t see the film or won’t see the point. They might come away thinking that Cheerleader is retro and simplistic, that its concerns don’t apply to their “civilized” neighborhoods, but rather to those unpoliced outbacks where depraved individuals murder gay people and the Boy Scouts win court cases allowing them to keep out gays. The cultural systems that condone more subtle forms of homophobia are left unexamined. This allows viewers to forget the important fact that homophobia and strict either-or gendering practices do prevail in today’s “civilized” cultures, liberal and tolerant as they may seem to those who don’t have to worry about such things.