But I'm a Cheerleader

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/28/06 20:00:05

"With 'friends' like this, gay moviegoers don't need enemies."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

In the self-consciously farcical 'But I'm a Cheerleader,' everyone thinks Natasha Lyonne is a lesbian, so she gets sent to a special camp ('True Directions') where young gay people are conditioned to be hetero. Does it work? No. The hetero-izing process, that is. Neither does the movie.

But I'm a Cheerleader tries way too hard to be a John Waters movie -- it's even got Waters regular Mink Stole as Natasha's mom. It's also trying too hard to be a cult comedy -- Bud Cort turns up as Natasha's dad, and the sight of Stole, Cort, and Lyonne at the dinner table (saying grace, yet) should be funkier than it is. Waters would've had a field day with this idea; so would Alexander Payne, whose satire would've been more even-handed.

Sounds like a promising premise, right? But the movie blows it by (A) trading in witless stereotypes and (B) not being remotely funny, despite the Roger Ebert blurb on the DVD box (was he on laughing gas or something?). A great comedy or drama could've been made about the whole "I Used to Be Gay Until I Turned to God" thing (an appalling real-life phenomenon), and this ain't it.

This is the kind of supposedly gay-friendly movie that traffics in stereotypes like whoa. The gay guys are your basic swishes, and the parents are uptight assholes without fail. The only group allowed to have some variety are the lesbians, who include Clea DuVall as a tomboy named Graham, Katharine Towne as a surly goth chick, Katrina Phillips as a butch jock, and Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures) as the sort of bashful girl she usually plays, only lesbian (she and Lyonne had just been in Detroit Rock City together). But really even the lesbians fall into generally recognized dyke stereotypes (although the dykiest one -- the butch jock -- turns out to be hetero after all). In all, it's another case of "dykes are chic, fags are funny."

We're encouraged to laugh at pretty much every instance of gay male identity (stereotyped or otherwise) we see. Example: Two former True Directions members, a gay couple named Larry and Lloyd Morgan-Gordon (Richard Moll and Wesley Mann), are sympathetic characters -- they take some of the kids out for a night at a gay club (called the Cocksucker, and show me the community that'd allow a club with that name within fifty miles of the town limits), and provide shelter for TD's outcasts. But they're still the standard-issue bickering gay couple, and even their hyphenated name is meant to be a joke.

Conversely, no particular lesbian traits come in for much goofing. During the kids' "gender identity training," the girls are competent enough at the housewife skills they're taught, whereas the gay boys are haplessly inept at football, car repair, cutting wood, etc., and are easily distracted by the camp supervisor's hunky son. This movie is basically for lesbians and for hetero women who enjoy gay men as sources of comfort and campy humor. Gay men may likely, and rightly, take the movie as a slap in the face.

Here's an example of the movie's meant-to-be-funny casting: RuPaul, in guy mode, plays one of TD's trainers. He makes his first appearance wearing a "Straight Is Great" T-shirt. (Didn't he notice how much fag-minstrelsy was in the script?) Cathy Moriarty is the camp supervisor, and her scenes with Lyonne have some potential for amusement given that the prematurely deep-voiced Lyonne is basically Moriarty 20 years ago, but instead you just note that Moriarty hasn't aged well and hope Lyonne has a better time of it.

How's Natasha in it? Weird. I mean, not intentionally, but seeing her being all cheerleader-y in this after seeing her scruffy riot-grrl performance in Confessions of a Trickbaby (aka Freeway 2) is ... well ... weird. I'm not sure she sells the cheerleader aspect -- they needed more of a bouncy Reese Witherspoon type, or Laura Dern 15 years ago -- but she's worth watching even when fundamentally miscast. Honestly, she would've been more believable in the Clea DuVall role, but then we'd lose DuVall in one of her better performances.

Lyonne and DuVall make a nice couple; their low-key acting styles mesh well, and when they start falling for each other their scenes together become candid, genuine, touching, and eventually erotic. They seem to be falling in love in a different movie from the one unfolding so goofily and broadly around them. Their love scenes are sensitively done and serious (whereas, again, the brief gay-male sexuality we see is fumbling and comical); the rest of the movie is irredeemably cartoonish.

Well, any movie with a cameo by Julie Delpy as a character credited as "Lipstick Lesbian" can't be all bad. Though it's a close call.

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