The Criterion Collection has a bit of a genre problem. They selectively invest when it best fits them and rarely ever choose films that are actually representative of the mainstream (Antichrist doesn’t really speak much to contemporary audience’s horror tastes). Criterion’s excellent selection of queer cinema, however, is very much indeed of the art house brand with films like Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color. There is Kevin Smith’s competent Chasing Amy, which is certainly lovely and complex in its own right, but it’s the only effort that’s widely seen and not completely bleak. And so, I offer you Jamie Babbit’s incredibly charming But I’m a Cheerleader (1999); a romantic comedy that’s like the lovechild of John Waters and John Hughes — as sweet as it is tender.
Megan (Natasha Lyonne) isn’t like the rest of the girls at her school, fawning over the hottest boys in magazines. She gets nothing out of being with her boyfriend, the attractive footballer Jared. So, her family, suspecting that she might be a lesbian, offers an intervention and sends her off to a conversion therapy camp to turn her straight; an act Megan things unnecessary because she doesn’t identify as lesbian. In a nice turn of irony, she begins to feel comfortable identifying herself as such and falls in love with Graham (Clea DuVall), who is more comfortable with her sexuality but only there at the behest of her parents lest she be disowned.
With his ridiculously on-the-nose color scheme and heightened authoritarian figures, Babbit was aiming more for the absurdist pleasures of John Waters. But the saccharine nature of But I’m a Cheerleader, and its rather tame sense of humor, makes it somewhere closer to a queer John Hughes. This is actually to the film’s benefit, as Babbit establishes a happy tone and finds an amalgamation of cinema style that doesn’t seem like a complete crib.
Much of this has less to do with the direction and more with the wit of its screenplay. Although the camp’s tasks seem mildly predictable at first, there’s a cutting quality to them. The uncomfortable nature of the tests reinforce gender roles and provide a necessary subversion. It would be a terrible bore to see the other queer teens buy into the camp, and the struggle against that heteronormativity isn’t enough to make it interesting. Incidentally, it’s fascinating to look at the characters’ faces and see just how uncomfortable they are. That tension, stress and discomfort is what makes Babbit’s quaint little comedy a bit more potent.
The happy ending of But I’m a Cheerleader resembles most rom-coms, but it’s significantly more complex than it seems. Babbit recognizes that the characters in question have a difficult choice to make: to subscribe to a dominant culture and survive or to “be themselves” and ostensibly be shunned. It’s not an easy question, and it’s probably posed better in other films, but as a 1999 release that allows its female characters agency and a sense of erotic desire, Babbit’s film is pretty outstanding. But I’m a Cheerleader certainly deserves a rah-rah of its own.
Kyle Turner (@tylekurner) is a freelance film critic and writer. He’s also the assistant editor of Movie Mezzanine and began writing on the Internet in 2007 with his blog The Movie Scene. Since then, Kyle has contributed to TheBlackMaria.org, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and relieved to know that he’s not a golem.