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"BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER"
(2000) (Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A teenage cheerleader must contend with her confused sexuality when her parents send her off to a camp to cure her presumed homosexuality.
PLOT:
Megan Bloomfield (NATASHA LYONNE) is a 17-year-old, high school cheerleader with a seemingly well-adjusted life and boyfriend of two years. Yet, whenever she's making out with him, she can't help but think about the other cheerleaders and their bodies, a point that he, her parents, Peter (BUD CORT) and Nancy (MINK STOLE), and friends have obviously noticed.

As such, they've arranged for a sexual identity intervention and have invited Mike (RuPAUL CHARLES) from True Directions, a rehabilitation camp for sexual reorientation, to their home. Although Megan doesn't believe she's a lesbian, her parents send her off to the camp with Mike. There, she meets the perky and optimistic but homophobic founder, Mary Brown (CATHY MORIARTY), and her stud of a son, Rock (EDDIE CIBRIAN), whom she secretly knows is gay.

Megan also meets various self-confessed gay and lesbian teens who are going through a five-step program designed to reprogram them into being heterosexuals. Among them is Graham (CLEA DuVALL), a bitter and defiant lesbian who isn't happy with her parents sending her to such a place, Hillary (MELANIE LYNSKEY), who shows Megan the ropes, Sinead (KATHARINE TOWNE), a punk rocker, and Jan (KATRINA PHILLIPS) a young woman who sports a Mohawk haircut. Among the young men is Andre (DOUGLAS SPAIN), an actor, and Dolph (DANTE BASCO) a wrestler.

As the young men and women go through the various steps of being reprogrammed, they must curb their feelings and desires for one another, the counter programming efforts of Larry (RICHARD MOLL) and Lloyd (WESLEY MANN), two ex-ex-gays who run a homosexual halfway house, and the ever present and observant Mary who diligently watches over her young charges.

OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
Just as there are so many different kinds of people in the world, there seem to just as many problems - real, imagined or assigned by those with blinders on - that afflict them. In the past, such people with such problems were seen as hopeless subjects, misfits or possessed by demonic spirits of one sort or another. As such, they faced isolation, castigation, imprisonment in prisons or mental hospitals and institutions, and sometimes much worse.

When not killed or operated upon to "cure" any number of those ailments, these people were otherwise considered undesirable addicts, derelicts or mutations and/or misfits of science. Of course, in the more compassionate later half of the 20th century, people and programs seemingly came out of the woodwork to help those with "social maladies," such as alcoholism, drug addiction and those brainwashed by cults.

While I've never personally read or heard about programs designed for "curing" homosexuality, they reportedly exist, although one can only question their "success rates" and means of deprogramming their subjects. That notion gets the heavy satirical treatment in Jamie Babbit's directorial debut, "But I'm a Cheerleader." Showing its hand right from the onset so that no one's confused about where it stands on the issue, the film is an occasionally but only mildly amusing look at the topic.

Something of a weak cousin to the sort of pictures camp director John Waters often delivers, the film, like many satires, probably would have been better off as a short skit rather than a feature length film (even for one like this that runs well short of ninety minutes).

As written by newcomer Brian Wayne Peterson (from a story by Babbit), the film does benefit from an imaginative and whimsical air that permeates the initial proceedings. The re-orientation camp appears straight out of the imagination of Waters as filtered through Tim Burton, while characters admit their sexual orientation as if a new member of AA ("I'm Andre and I'm a homosexual").

Obviously aimed at debunking the notion of curing homosexuality as well as 1950s era sexual stereotypes, costume designer Alix Friedberg ("That Thing You Do," "Instinct") and production designer Rachel Kamerman (the art director for "Twilight Of The Golds," and "The Last Time I Committed Suicide") have fashioned a comically nightmarish, Alice in Wonderland type world where everything related to a woman is pink and domestically oriented.

Not surprisingly, the men are then obviously dressed in blue and participate in stereotypically masculine behavior such as chopping wood, fixing cars and grabbing one's crotch. In essence, it's something akin to a surreal and elongated version of the funny scene from "In and Out" where Kevin Kline's character listens to the "Be a Man" audiotape.

Yet, where that funny film was a more subtle and far more cleverly constructed look at figuring out one's sexual identity that turned into a picture with a lot of heart, this film doesn't manage to transcend its satirical underpinnings and roots despite trying to do just that during its second half.

Unlike many of the spoof films or full-length adaptations of "Saturday Night Live" skits that usually lose their edge and run out of gas once the setup and visual gags have been dispensed with (and some semblance of a story lamely attempts to take over), this one actually has somewhere to go beyond the initial material.

Since the film's stance is so apparent and lacks some much needed ambiguity, however, what ultimately develops is rather predictable and offers few surprises (despite the filmmakers' efforts to keep the ending in doubt) and/or wickedly funny developments to allow the film to build more of an imaginative, satirical bite. As such, the film doesn't do much more than the obvious in saying that being gay is okay, that sexual stereotypes are wrong, and that true love will conquer any doubts, complications or obstacles standing in its way.

Considering the approach the film takes, the performances are generally okay, but many fall (purposefully or not) into the typical gay and lesbian stereotypes. Granted, the film is a comedy, but beyond Natascha Lyonne ("Detroit Rock City," "Slums of Beverly Hills") and Clea DuVall ("Committed," "Girl, Interrupted"), most of the rest of the performances are more in the line of caricatures rather than believable, real-life characters.

As the sexually confused teen, Lyonne delivers a fun and somewhat charming take on the character (especially at the beginning where she daydreams while her boyfriend makes out with her), but she can't do much with the character beyond that, despite the failed attempts to make us sympathize with her confusion and longings. Inhabiting her 5-step program classmate and eventual lover, DuVall manages to overcome the stereotypical sullen and moody characteristics of her character, not to mention the ever present hair in the eyes look she's saddled with (think of Ally Sheedy as the "bad teen" and you'll get an approximation of the character).

The rest of the young performers playing the remaining gay and lesbian characters pretty much mesh together and consequently don't make much of a memorable impression. Meanwhile, Cathy Moriarty ("Crazy in Alabama," "Raging Bull") and a drag-less RuPaul (the "Brady Bunch" films) play the camp counselors, but aren't given enough exaggerated nuances, behavior and/or dialogue to make them standout as well as they could have (especially since one of the big jokes revolves around RuPaul's appearing au naturel and as an ex-gay man).

While the film obviously wasn't intended to be taken seriously, some will obviously be offended by the film's blatant agenda (which may very well be the point). For those who aren't, they'll probably find the film initially amusing, but then agree that it simply runs out of gas and clever ideas to maintain its satirical edge and momentum throughout the proceedings. Like a race horse that blasts out of the gate but then runs out of energy long before the finish line, this film starts out okay, but then quickly unfolds and develops in a mostly disappointing and predictable fashion. As such, "But I'm a Cheerleader" rates as a 2.5 out of 10.




Reviewed May 19, 2000 / Posted July 7, 2000


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