Criterion Prediction #248: But I’m a Cheerleader, by Alexander Miller

Title: But I’m a Cheerleader 

Year: 1999

Director: Jamie Babbit

Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, RuPaul, Michelle Williams, Cathy Moriarty 

Synopsis: Despite being a cheerleader with a football player boyfriend on her arm, Megan’s conservative parents suspect she’s a lesbian and send her off to “True Directions,” a sexual redirection school to “cure” her of her gayness.

Critique: But I’m a Cheerleader belongs to that wonderful subset of movies that popped up all over the 90s and early 2000s. These suburban anxiety films often dissected the heteronormative culture of the nuclear family and the lingering gasp of Reaganoid ideology. Filmmakers (Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, Amy Heckerling) were peeling back the layers of contemporary Americana and looking into the teenage experience as well as the gay experience. But Babbit achieved something special with But I’m a Cheerleader. She had fun. This colorful subversion of cultural mores makes all the right moves in terms of its satirical glee. Casting a stripped-down RuPaul as a straight male coach, seeing queer kids awkwardly aping straight behavior to smuggle past their parents, the mind-numbing conservatism of the finger waving authority figures, it all hits, generating chortles of sincerity.

The humor is broad and works without the advantage of metaphor. All the main characters are where they are because they are gay. There’s no changing them (literally) and we’re not tasked with heavy-handed allegories. While potent gay movies of the time have their place (Boys Don’t Cry, Philadelphia), it’s refreshing to see a film that’s not an “issue film.” No one’s dying, contracting HIV or getting beaten or shot. But I’m a Cheerleader isn’t escapist fare but intelligent satire that lets us laugh at the sheer lunacy of something as asinine as conversion therapy, despite the real thing being no laughing matter. 

Why It Belongs in the Collection: For some reason, But I’m a Cheerleader didn’t receive rave critical notices, holding down a startling 39% on the Tomatometer. If this proves anything, it’s that Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t prove much. But the film is in the throes of a renaissance as more informed audiences are warming to director Babbit’s humor and ironic tone. Featured on Criterion’s streaming channel, But I’m a Cheerleader would be a welcome addition, contrasting with the often heavy selection of dense arthouse fare.

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