July 2, 2011

Queer Review: But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)

But I'm a Cheerleader
Director: Jamie Babbit
Writer: Brian Wayne Peterson and Jamie Babbit.
Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Williams, RuPaul, Clea DuVall, Cathy Moriarty, Eddie Cibrian, Brandt Wille

As a satirical look at ex-gay organizations But I'm a Cheerleader is moderately succesful. As a narrative feature, it is even less impressive. There are parts of But I'm a Cheerleader that drag and the dark realities and consequences of actual ex-gay ministries are unfortunately ignored.

When her parents and friends start to believe that Megan (Natasha Lyonne) may be a lesbian, they send her to an ex-gay youth camp called True Directions, which is run by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty) and Mike (RuPaul). There Megan meets Cathy Moriarty (Clea DuVall) whose facing the threat from her homophobic father of being completely cut off and ostracised. Since Graham also lost her mother this way, this threat is not one she takes lightly even as she refuses to repress her same-sex attractions. Ironically, while Mary Brown tries to make Megan and Graham heterosexual, the two youth begin a tentative romance allowing Megan to explore her previously repressed sexuality.

The Queering
There is some amusing satire and some humour in But I'm a Cheerleading, but this is counterbalanced by the slow plotting and lame ending. Given that the MPAA originally rated But I'm a Cheerleader NC-17 according to This Film is Not Yet Rated for a scene featuring of a woman masturbating, a scene which appears to have been edited for the R-rated version, I could not help wondering if other, edgier material had also been cut. I wondered this because the final version is lacking any of the potential bite that could have resulted from a send up of the ex-gay movement. There is also a great deal of unexplored material, such as the resulting jealousy that is only hinted at between the female students when Megan and Graham hook up. I also would have liked to know more about what goes on at the ex-ex-gay group down the road from True Directions.

The soft selling of the negative aspects of ex-gay organizations is actually a big problem for me. Granted this won't be mistaken for an advertisement, But I'm A Cheerleader never really shows the darker side of what goes on at such places. One could almost make the case that by not showing the extreme and inhuman methodologies often used (of which aversion therapy with electro-shockers is only the beginning) Jamie Babbit is actually doing a disservice for those individuals who were forced into such ex-gay centres by their parents. For a more accurate and harder hitting expose on ex-gay organizations, check out Anderson Cooper's The Sissy Boy Experiments.

There are at least a few clever aspects to the story, the best of which is the casting of Rupaul as Mary's assistant and who lusts after her son Rock (Eddie Cibrian). Not to mention the underlying irony to the fact that Megan might not have ever acknowledged her lesbian attraction if she had never been sent to the ex-gay camp. At the beginning she declares she is in love with her boyfriend Jared (Brandt Wille) but while at the camp, Graham is the one who manages to draw out Megan's deeply repressed feelings. This leaves one to wonder where Megan would have ended up without any intervention.

The funniest bits involve the sending up of the gender polarization promoted by the ex-gay organization. Mike tries to teach the gay guys to be "manly men" who spit, grab their crotches, and chop wood. All the while Mary tries to show the lesbians how to be good housewives and fairy princesses. The sheer absurdity of these situations will not be lost on anyone. It's really too bad that the final neutered version lacks any bite because there was a lot of potential and promise to what is on display in But I'm a Cheerleader.

Recommended with qualifications. Ultimately there is some value here for those who won't mind the slow parts or underwhelming ending.

The Rating


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