Ah… The 90s… The decade of platform shoes, inflatable rucksacks and flannel shirts – those of us in our 30s remember it well. A strangely peaceful decade with an abundance of vapid teen films that focused entirely on privileged young humans finding other privileged young humans to bump uglies with. But I’m A Cheerleader was released at the tail end of that, with a poster that did little to help it stand out from the crowd. Reviews at the time were harsh, labelling it as gaudy and cartoonish. But it was a big hit on the festival circuit, and reviews from the Gay media were far more positive. Over time it gained a cult following, not least because of cuts made to gain an R rating with the MPA (Motion Picture Association of America) which director Jamie Babbitt (who is Gay herself) blames on “discrimination for making a Gay film”. Considering the other teen movies of the time, American Pie in particular, this distinction holds weight. An ironic thing when you consider the subject matter. Thankfully, these scenes are restored for this Blu-ray directors cut release.
We are introduced to Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a cheerleader with a very normal best friend (Michelle Williams) and a very normal boyfriend (Brandt Wille). Unfortunately, she shows some worrying signs. She eats tofu, she has artwork in her room that looks like vaginas, and she listens to Melissa Etheridge. For her clean-cut middle class American family, these things are a clear and very concerning sign that Megan is a Lesbian. In response to this, her parents do what any self-respecting American parents would: ship her off to a “reparative therapy” camp which promises to heal her of her homosexuality. “True Directions” aim to find the root of Megan’s Lesbianism and revert her to the latent straight person she was always meant to be. You have to wonder what they really expected to happen though. By putting a group of horny repressed Gay teens in a house together where there’s no question over whether the person you’re crushing on is also Gay, they eliminate one aspect of what makes finding a partner difficult. Of course, feelings start to bubble up between some of them, primarily Megan and Graham (Clea DuVall), a grungy teen with awful parents who got caught with another girl.
But I’m A Cheerleader wraps some very serious subject matters in candy coloured Americana. “True Directions” is for Megan a sort of awakening as she moves from her brown and boring home to this brightly coloured hellscape where she has to take certain steps to repress her homosexual urges. Of course some of the traumatic aspects of this are addressed, and some scenes in the last act blur the line between being humorous and disturbing. But the cast of characters Megan is surrounded by, despite being stereotypical, all offer various views of what they hope to gain from their experience. Or whether they just want to live through this and their home life until they can escape and be themselves.
There is a naivety to it, and the full extent of the trauma inflicted by these camps and other forms of conversion therapy are not even close to examined. But they are hinted at, as some characters give the five-step program their all. Melanie Lynski gives a wonderful performance as Hilary, who hides her shame behind a perky smile and enthusiastic compliance. Duvall gives a beautifully nuanced and conflicted performance, as we have seen so many times from her before; she is enlightened but so afraid. And her fawning reactions to certain things are clearly rooted in trauma and shame. Natasha Lyonne shows how far she has come, as her perky cheerleader evolves into a brave and inspiring role model for teens who are just learning who they are. The brilliant Cathy Moriarty too gives it her all as the director of “True Directions”, she is always a joy to watch, even in villainy. RuPaul also gives a hilarious and ironic performance as a staff member at the facility, complete with a “Straight is Great” t-shirt.
Despite all of this subtext, But I’m A Cheerleader is brilliantly funny with some real laugh out loud moments. A stylistic sibling to Heathers and Edward Scissorhands, it wraps up its themes with sharp wit and brightly contrasted framing which is complimented by Pat Irwin’s light and quirky score. These visuals and the accompaniment are sharply presented in the Blu-ray as the colours are some of the brightest you will have seen, really lending itself to the format.
This new Blu-ray release contains a small but worthy collection of bonus features, including interviews from the time the film was made and a zoom interview recorded last year. These work together to really anchor the film in context and strengthen it’s message. We are also given Jamie Babbitt’s student film ‘Discharge’ which is a gross but interesting silent film about the double standards surrounding men and women.
But I’m A Cheerleader is a cult classic, and this Blu-ray release gives it the finish its stunning visuals, themes, and performances deserve.
But I’m A Cheerleader is released on Blu-ray from Lionsgate on June 21st.