Why I Love… #135: But I’m a Cheerleader

Year: 1999

Director: Jamie Babbit

Stars: Natasha Lyonne, Clea Duvall, Melanie Lynskey

When I first saw and enthusiastically responded to Desiree Akhavan’s fervent take-down of queer conversion therapy The Miseducation of Cameron Post, I had neither seen nor heard of Jamie Babbit’s 1999 satirical masterclass But I’m A Cheerleader. Which is not to say I would have responded any differently to Akhavan’s film – it’s a great movie in its own right – but since discovering Babbit’s subversive offering, I now understand where the real trailblazing began.

Appearing the same year as – and in direct contrast to – the aggressively hetero-normative and lewd American Pie (which also features Natasha Lyonne in a marginalised role), But I’m A Cheerleader now stands as a funnier, spikier, more satirical and far more essential cornerstone in the history of US teen comedy. Lyonne stars as cheerleader Megan, corralled off to conversion therapy camp True Directions by her concerned parents. Megan doesn’t seem to enjoy kissing her boyfriend, doesn’t have pictures of guys in her locker, and her creative arts are downright vaginal. As prim mistress Mary (Cathy Moriarty) asserts, “Looks like we got you just in time”.

Director Jamie Babbit pushes an extreme, fetishistic vision of American suburbia akin to Tim Burton’s scathing depiction in Edward Scissorhands. The overbearing pastel hues of catalogues and magazines dominate the colour palette; too-perfect blanket shades indicative of homogeny; a Disneyfied, corporate-cleansed version of the USA.

The use of colour to emphasise normality comes to the fore at True Directions, where the girls are uniformed in pink and the boys in blue, as if to code them to their supposed gender norms (Alix Friedberg’s costuming throughout is tiptop). Mary’s Jackie Kennedy-esque pink power suit preempts our own assumption that she herself is suppressing her own lesbian desires, lumping her in with the prospective converts. Through costuming we’re encouraged to read into the potential subtext of the character.

In this environment, the sight of Clea DuVall’s Graham indignantly smoking a cigarette on a garish pink bedspread is a spark of necessary rebellion in a smothering climate. In group, introducing herself, Graham emphasises her attraction to women, while her character’s name – traditionally masculine – advances a sense of a person predisposed to challenging the status quo. The kids are paraded through a number of ridiculous and clearly ineffectual exercises intended to assert traditional roles. The guys fix cars, the girls clean, while those overseeing their conversion seem blissfully unaware of their own redundancy.

For Megan, Graham becomes a guiding light, encouraging her away from her denial and shame and toward self-acceptance and the pleasures of lesbian sex. When it comes to this last item, Babbit’s depiction of her leads is loving but also wonderfully respectful, eschewing the constant barrage of colour for something choreographed in shadow play. Intimate. Personal. Too personal for our objectification. It’s a great choice.

Babbit’s casting is a constant hoot. Not only in the joys of looking back at a cult classic that features power wattage such as Michelle Williams and Melanie Lynskey, but in the ways that, early doors, Babbit nods to the staples of queer culture that influenced her movie. RuPaul Charles appears as the goatee’d and square Mike; mentor for the gay boys and a gleefully unwitting object of thirst. While John Waters regular Mink Stole plays it straight as Megan’s deeply concerned mother. After an unexpected cameo? Julie Delpy’s surprise presence at gay bar Cock Sucker should suffice. Her unnamed character – credited as ‘Lipstick Lesbian’ – acts as a foil for the growing sexual tension between Megan and Graham.

It helps, of course, that But I’m a Cheerleader is all-the-way hilarious, from innuendos and sexually suggestive sight-gags, to killer dialogue and its crushingly sardonic spirit. This last is manifested wickedly by DuVall. Graham is Babbit’s agitator spirit. I’ve been a fan of DuVall’s for a long, long while (Carnivàle posse rise up), but Graham may be her crowning achievement, an iconic lesbian character in a broadly approachable American teen comedy made in an era that purported to be progressive but which, on reflection, was often anything but.

Cheerleader has its wantonly kooky precedents. The aforementioned Burton and Waters attacked civilian squareness and did so in ways that encouraged mainstream participation. And, shortly before Babbit’s film, there is also the offbeat perfection of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. For me, Cheerleader sits at a mid-point between that flick and Josie and the Pussycats – the three of them a joyous, unofficial trilogy that lay waste to the boring conventions of the comedy movie with eye-popping pride.

And I can see its influence since, beyond Josie. Babbit’s approach to face-on staging and 180 degree cutting (along with the bright-as-can-be palette) point toward Richard Bates Jr’s wantonly vulgar canon, particularly Excision and Suburban Gothic. And of course there’s Akhavan and her film.

For those who pride themselves on collecting music cues from cult movies, a wry smile will be brought by some of Babbit’s picks here. She got to April March’s “Chick Habbit” long before Tarantino did, and made “Funnel of Love” sound essential way before Jim Jarmusch and his band retooled it for Only Lovers Left Alive. Cheerleader casually carries its hipster points in this regard. The soundtrack slaps.

Babbit herself wasn’t done taking down suburbia, and her 2005 film The Quiet starring Elisha Cuthbert challenges Todd Solondz at his own game, in my mind producing something far more effectively unhinged than the try-hard director’s often volatile offerings. Don’t be surprised if I put words down defending this under-valued gem at some point in the future.

Against the unfeeling, unseeing rigidity of True Directions (a place rendered as foolish but also powerfully misguided – with an occasional touch of Argento’s Suspiria to it, no?) you can’t help but root for the kids cooped up there. You can’t help but root for Megan and Graham, or peripheral characters like Katharine Towne’s Sinead, for that matter. Underneath the snark and swipes and general artifice, there’s plenty to care about.

The importance of colour comes to the fore again at the film’s climax. Having been ejected from True Directions, Megan crashes the graduation ceremony in an effort to rescue Graham. At first there’s the comedic element of Megan and her compatriots dressed in purple camo gear (camouflaging them against what, exactly?) as they duck behind scrub and hustle across the grass playing field. But, when that doesn’t work, Megan changes into her old cheerleader reds. The crimson pops on the screen, indicative of her passion (and recalling, for us, her own thirst for her former teammates), and it proves strong enough to draw Graham away from the dire threshold of American normality.

She scurries with Megan away from the crowds toward another future; unknown but honest. A little coda pleasingly suggests that Megan’s dad (Bud Cort) manages to reconcile and support his daughter’s sexuality. There’s hope in that moment that others will also.

But mostly, But I’m a Cheerleader is about having a good time. I find solace in it. I’m not biologically female. I’m not a gay man. But neither do I position myself as a CIS male. Jamie Babbit’s film is a little gift to anyone who is disinterested in society’s little boxes. Lionsgate have just issued a new blu-ray of the film. Time to either revisit or catch the fuck up.

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