Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
The only real downside to watching But I’m a Cheerleader for the first time is stumbling onto the initial reviews for the film where seemingly everyone but Roger Ebert (God bless him) just seemed to totally miss the point of the film. Most aggravating among these reviews is a common refrain from primarily heterosexual reviewers about how the film is just “preaching to the choir” and doesn’t do enough to appeal to viewers who are against the LGBTQA+ community. The idea that art about members of an oppressed community of human beings is obligated to make an effort to reach out to privileged populations suppressing said oppressed communities is staggeringly stupid. The humanity of LGBTQA+ people is not some debate where “both sides have a point” like a debate over Star Wars movies, a film like But I’m A Cheerleader is not lesser than because it decides to exclusively focus on queer characters and their struggles.
The queer protagonist at the center of But I’m a Cheerleader is Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a High School girl who loves cheerleading, lives our a routine life with her parents and boyfriend and presumably thinks Thursday is quite the concept. That routine life is thrown into disarray when she comes home one day to find out that her parents and friends have discovered that Megan is a Lesbian, a facet of her own personality that Megan herself hasn’t been fully conscious of yet. Megan’s parents are now planning to ship their daughter off to True Directions, a reparative therapy program led by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarity) that uses a variety of programs reinforcing traditional gender roles and condemning queerness that are supposed “cure” LGBTQA+ teenagers of their queerness.
Instead of just wiping away Megan’s Lesbianism, though, True Directions allows her the chance to interact with other queer individuals for the first time and discover her own sexuality. Megan’s internal coming-of-age queer experience at this seemingly inhospitable locale is reflected in how the sets used to realize the True Directions campground hew closely to a visual sensibility associated with gay culture. How can Megan not learn to embrace her Lesbianism when she’s waltzing around a campground that has a production design aesthetic seemingly inspired by the visuals seen in the works of Joel Schumacher and John Waters?
Bright colors abound all over the place, bright green, vibrant pink, fiery red, they’re in every room and piece of furniture Megan encounters. Even the axes gay men use to train for “manhood” are rendered in a luscious shade of blue! Each and every wall in But I’m a Cheerleader looks like it’s made out of Jolly Ranchers while the exteriors of these buildings make sure that each location on the True Directions campground, from a small hut used to punish patrons exhibiting gay behavior to the lavish house Mary Brown resides in, look like cutesy dollhouses. There’s an extravagant quality to the way director Jamie Babbit renders every nook and cranny at the True Directions camp that makes this motion picture a total visual feast.
The fact that there’s so much colorful detail in every inch of the frame for much of But I’m a Cheerleader makes one appreciate the more restrained direction, color and lighting choices in a pivotal sequence depicting Megan spending the night with her romantic interest Graham Eaton (Clea DuVall) for the first time. Here, the two characters are positioned just against a black backdrop, there aren’t any bright colors to be found in the background to capture your eye. This moment of intimacy eschews adhering to the traditional visual scheme of But I’m a Cheerleader to reflect the two characters finding such immense solace in one another that it’s like they become detached from reality and all of its bigotry as well. The gorgeous visual sensibilities of But I’m a Cheerleader don’t just dazzle the eyeballs, but in this kind of intimate sequence, they also touch your soul in a profound way.
Such poignancy is accompanied by a sense of wacky humor that feels fitting for dealing with something as ridiculous as a program that treats homosexuality as an abomination and thinks you can actually cure that part of a human being. Rocket Raccoon is a more plausibly realistic entity than the notion so why not treat it like the comically nonsensical idiocy that is? Much like Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, But I’m a Cheerleader makes the intimidating nature of its oppressive characters (in this case, homophobic figures like Mary Brown) pronounced but it also gets a lot of comedy out of taking such characters down a peg through over-the-top comedy. In this case, the equivalent to a joke like “Concentration Camp Eirhardt” are gags like Brown and the other counselors being oblivious to how their programs tend to reinforce queerness rather than stifle it.
Screenwriter Brian Wayne Peterson, working from a story by Jamie Babbit, packs But I’m a Cheerleader chock full of humorous jokes about everyday objects standing in for male genitals and witty lines of dialogue. But such wacky gags don’t come at the expense of either exploring Megan as a character or scenes of effective pathos. On the contrary, these elements manage to live together in harmony to create something that feels totally one-of-a-kind, a fitting achievement for a movie that’s all about emphasizing the uniqueness of each and every member of the LGBTQA+ community. Critics of But I’m a Cheerleader were right, this film doesn’t make an attempt to appeal to homophobes. Where they were wrong was in thinking that was a bad thing. But I’m a Cheerleader doesn’t have time to care about what the Mike Pence’s of the world think of its work. This film is too busy creating beautiful sets, memorable pieces of comedy and emotionally affecting scenes (Oh god, the ending of this movie left me a mess of tears). But I’m a Cheerleader is all the better for focusing exclusively on those elements and its countless other virtues since they make this movie such a delightful and moving experience.