YOU KNOW FROM the opening slow-motion shots of cheerleaders joyously leaping into air, their curvy endowments jiggling, that this is going to be a different kind of gay film. It's about time. Most coming-out movies have been predictably dramatic: Gay teens fess up to their friends and family, and get buckets of homophobia and rejection in return. Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader is refreshing in that it plays the pains of coming out for laughs. Tongue firmly in cheek, Cheerleader is like an estrogen-based counterpart to John Waters and The Ambiguously Gay Duo cartoon on Saturday Night Live.
BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER
directed by Jamie Babbit
with Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, Cathy Moriarty, and RuPaul Charles
opens June 14 at Broadway Market
Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is a freckle-faced cheerleader who shows worrisome signs of deviation from her good Christian pot-roast-and-mashed-potatoes upbringing. She listens to Melissa Etheridge; she thinks of cheerleaders while kissing her boyfriend; and, most suspicious of all, she eats tofu. Her concerned parents (including John Waters veteran Mink Stole) ship her off to True Directions, a homo rehab camp where budding gays and lesbians are "converted" before it's too late. Ruling over the camp are a Nazi den mother (Raging Bull's Cathy Moriarty) and a "dialogue facilitator," played by none other than RuPaul, sans wig and MAC cosmetics.
Infectiously bright and cartoonish, the movie plays around with culturally loaded symbols of gender. The camp is located in a Victorian house where everything is color-coordinated in hot pink, blue, and yellow. All of the girls are dressed in pink, the boys in blue. Tomboyish girls are inculcated in the feminine arts of diaper changing and carpet cleaning, while sissy boys are taught auto mechanics and football.
But while Cheerleader's look is as sugary as a birthday cake, the story bluntly portrays conversion therapy as a load of bull. Moriarty harangues the teens into admitting the "root" of their homosexuality, as if there were a definitive moment when things went wrong and they turned gay. Their coerced confessions are naturally a sham; one girl uses the excuse that she was born in France, while a Jewish boy blames a traumatic bris. Megan desperately cites her father's unemployment, which left her mom to take charge of the family.
The enjoyably broad, campy Cheerleader lags when things turn mushy between Megan and another inmate (Clea DuVall). Overall, however, it moves briskly and features a talented ensemble cast (including Aussie actress Melanie Lynskey of Heavenly Creatures). As for a happy ending, it only comes to those who refuse to be converted or closeted. Three cheers for that.