But I’m a Cheerleader (1999): Babit’s Misfire–Wannabe Satire about Rehab Camp for Gays and Lesbians

Toronto Film Fest 1999 (Discovery)–Broadly conceived and schematically directed, But I’m a Cheerleader is a shallow, only mildly entertaining satire about a rehabilitation camp for gays and lesbians.

Basically a short, extended to the limits of a 81 minute long feature, the movie benefits from a well-grounded performance from Natasha Lyonne as the vivacious teenager sent for sexual (dis) orientation, but suffers from Cathy Moriraty’s irritatingly one-note rendition as the camp’s homophobic counselor.

Fine Line should expect ultra-modest returns for a comedy that has limited crossover appeal beyond the immediate target audience of young, undiscriminating gay viewers.

At its current form, But I’m a Cheerleader comes across as a retro item, made in the mold of John Waters’ shockingly profane satires, but without Waters’ wit or edge. This is a conceptual movie, which in this case means an excellent premise and a hilarious point of departure, but poor execution, particularly in the writing and directing departments.

Based on Babbit’s story, Brian Wayne Peterson’s script has a most promising beginning. Megan (Natasha Lyonne), an innocent high school cheerleader, lives with her straight-laced parents and engages in all the rituals expected of a 17 year old teenager, including lengthy but not terribly exciting kisses from her b.f. Too forthright, outspoken and normal for her repressive environment, she is soon suspected to be a burgeoning lesbian and her parents send her to True Directions, a rehab camp in the desert.

The place is run under the strict, all-seeing leadership of Mary (Moriarty, who’s made up to look and also acts like a caricature of Faye Dunaway). At first, Megan dutifully embraces the deprogramming, hoping to return to her life of boyfriends, football games and cheerleading as soon as possible.

Modeled on rehabs for alcoholics or drug-addicts, the center subjects its residents to a five-step program, which also gives the film its structure, plodding along from step to step (step 1 is Admit You’re a Homosexual). Along the way, Megan befriends Graham (Clea DuVall), a rebellious fellow, who makes her realize that perhaps her sexual orientation is not as stable as she had imagined it to be.

Pandering to the audience, the film makes the most obvious choices, lacking any subtlety. The teenagers in the camp are all stereotypical characters, particularly the boys who’re mostly whining sissies. Same applies to Mary’s son, Rock (Eddie Cibrian); a hunk dressed in tight t-shirt and jeans whose raw sexuality offers irresistible temptations for the boys.

Considering that such camps actually exist, it’s a satire that barks but doesn’t bite. In her feature directorial debut, Babbit doesn’t show much facility for the technical aspects of film; most scenes are statically staged. She’s also not very good with her ensemble. At times, one gets the impression that the director’s job was mostly restricted to casting. Hence, Megan’s parents are played by the iconic Bud Cort, still best known for Harold and Maude, and John Waters’s regular, Mink Stole. Flamboyant transvestite Ru Paul is cast as an ex-gay guide, and the charming Julie Delp makes a brief appearance as a lipstick lesbian.

Alix Friedberg’s costumes are colorful, and Rachel Kamerman’s production design is highly stylized, dominated by pink and blue, emulating the scheme of the far superior French gender-bender comedy, Ma Vie en Rose.

Credits

A Fine Line Features release of an Ignite Entertainment production, in association with the Kushner-Locke Company and HKM Films. Produced by Andrea Sperling and Leanna Creel.

Executive producers, Michael Burns, Marc Butan.
Directed by Jamie Babbit
Screenplay, Brian Wayne Peterson.
Camera , Jules LaBarthe
Editor, Cecily Rhett
Music, Pat Irwin
Production design, Rachel Kamerman
Costume design, Colleen Atwood
Sound (Dolby), Shawn Holden

Running time: 81 minutes

Cast

Megan………Natasha Lyonne
Mary Brown….Cathy Moriarty
Peter……………Bud Cort
Nancy………….Mink Stole
Mike………Ru Paul Charles
Graham………..Clea DuVall
Rock………..Eddie Cibrian
Lipstick lesbian..Julie Delpy