1990s

‘But I’m a Cheerleader’: Celebrating 20 Years of Style and Sincerity

But I'm a Cheerleader Movie Film

In Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, there’s no escaping the intent of visual style. The use of color isn’t just a slight allusion to the story or a subtle way to add context to larger themes, but is instead deployed with purpose, morphing the drab settings into a cartoonish play on gender norms, illuminating the beating heart of the film. This exaggeration is a deliberate point, rather than an accidental oversight by a first-time feature filmmaker, as the artificiality of the world enables the story’s poignancy. The realism is difficult to swallow, but the colors and aesthetics offer something palatable, creating a dissonance that makes for some of the most impressive scenes of the film. One of the aspects of But I’m a Cheerleader that’s always been so thoroughly striking is the contrast of the visuals with the emotional toll. With all the baby blues and bright pinks, Babbit’s film lures viewers into an outlandish sense of security before introducing its beating heart. 

Twenty years after releasing in the United States, But I’m a Cheerleader is an indisputable cult classic. The film follows Natasha Lyonne’s Megan, a teenager who has been sent away by her parents to a conversion therapy camp to “pray away” her lesbianism. In another film, this would be ample fodder for grays and serious lighting as a means to blatantly manipulate the audience’s emotions. Films like those should exist, but through Babbit’s cotton candy landscape, But I’m a Cheerleader is less about exploring trauma and more about indulging in self-discovery, sexual exploration and, ultimately, escape. It doesn’t  trivialize the act of conversion therapy or make a joke out of it, but rather gives the audience a chance to lock onto a story that, in other hands, could offer less comfort and more pain. The pain isn’t the point, though, and by dropping the characters straight into a Barbie House from hell, with its plastic interiors and color-coded dress for boys and girls, the emotional resonance of the story becomes all the more clear. The characters may be dressed in stiff pink frills and may present rigidly false personas, but their wants for romance — their lust and curiosity — are naked to see. 

But I'm a Cheerleader Movie Film

But I’m a Cheerleader’s opening  slapstick makes it tough to imagine a climatic declaration of love, one that’s as tear-inducing as any other grand and romantic gesture. The hint of this transformation begins as real love blooms inside the True Directions household as Megan falls for Clea Duvall’s impossibly cool Graham. It’s in their flirtations that the subtly spreads, even as the duo are forced  to perform “gender conforming” roles (along with the rest of the house). It’s the brief moments of eye contact — the whispers and the touches —  that serve as the film’s foundation. This intimacy is so innocently inquisitive and blatant in its vulnerability that the narrative is allowed to cut through the spectacle and costumed uniforms.

A night trip away to a local gay bar further explores this concept, and it’s one of the very few times the characters leave the True Directions base camp. Here, they’re just teenagers at the start of a burgeoning romance trying to figure out who they are, and what that means when placed against warring family members threatening disownment (and a society that allows something like conversion therapy to exist in the first place). Everything is dimly lit, aside from a neon light fixture and a few red lights that line the bar. The costuming and makeup showcase the differences between Megan and Graham, with one being light and the other dark. The contrast is made literal with Megan’s pink top and voluminous blonde hair, and even in the way her huge blue eyes widen to take in the new world around her. The character’s innocence foreshadows the ending, as the tables are turned and Megan comes to the “rescue” of Graham.

The ending of But I’m a Cheerleader is movie magic. Cinematographer Jules Labarthe does tremendous work throughout the entirety of the film, deploying a keen eye on how to contrast the falsity of the house with the reality of the outdoors. The vibrant, garish pinks against the muddy browns and greens of the trees act as both physical and metaphorical barriers between Megan and the outside world. It’s the ending that turns this light satire into a great love story centered on the necessity and hard-earned gift of self-acceptance. Megan performs a cheer for Graham to convince her to run away from True Directions (i.e. the world that asks them to conform), and the result is joyous. The visuals, the music, the performances and the tangible chemistry between Lyonne and Duvall allow for a crescendo moment that leaves the audience fully enthralled and enraptured.

But I'm a Cheerleader Movie Film

Romance calls for declarative moments of action in film — for gestures that sweep both the audience and the focal characters off their feet. From a boombox lifted above a protagonist’s head to a man racing over the Brooklyn Bridge, these acts of love — and often requests for forgiveness or renewed trust — are key to the DNA of romantic films. Over the years, these themes have so often aligned with heterosexual romances, but have recently bled into more LGBTQ+ stories, at least with more frequency. From breezy comedies like Imagine Me & You to the underrated Alice Wu film Saving Face, from the sweet, earthbound romance of God’s Own Country to the YA-friendly Love, Simon, happy endings within the Queer umbrella of storytelling are slowly but surely becoming more commonplace. Upon But I’m a Cheerleader’s 2000 release, the film had much less to build from in terms of historically uplifting Queer stories. Regardless, it spins Megan’s profession of love as something tremendously moving, and does so without a hint of insincerity. 

Despite the tongue and cheek take on the abhorrent homophobia these characters face both in and outside of True Directions, Babbit never undermines the raw emotions that Megan, Graham and company experience. The director forces the pageantry of everything else to appear exactly as the artifice it is (RuPaul’s character teaching the men to chop wood as women try on wedding gowns).

The contrast between the eccentric imagery and the narrative’s earnest nature creates some of the film’s greatest singular achievements. Instead of allowing the big colors and set design to distract from the central romance and coming of age premise, the visual palette instead magnifies the mission statement. In cinema, it’s tough to depict sincerity without it coming across as contrived or sickly-sweet, but it’s a feeling that myself and many others yearn for, especially when it comes together as beautifully as it does in But I’m a Cheerleader.

Allyson Johnson (@AllysonAJ) is the film editor at TheYoungFolks.com as well as a film critic for ThePlaylist.net and CambridgeDay.com. As a member of the Online Film Critic Society and Boston Online Film Critics Association, her writing can also be found at TheMarySue.com and Seacoast Online.

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