Saturday, 22 August 2015

But I'm A Cheerleader

But I'm A Cheerleader is a 1999 film directed by Jamie Babbit and written by Brian Wayne Peterson, the first feature film from both. Babbit came up with the initial idea of a film about 'Conversion Therapy', an all too real practice in which gay people attempt to change their sexual orientation to straight, after reading about a man who'd been to a conversion camp, though the camp in the film was partially inspired on the halfway-house her mother ran for youths with drug and alcohol problems. She asked Peterson to write the script, which he drew on personal experience of been gay and the experience he had with conversion therapy from when he worked in a prison clinic for sex offenders.

So, given the serious nature of the topic this must be a hard hitting drama about the struggles of young homosexuals thrust into a very homophobic environment... well no, we have 2007's Save Me for that. Instead But I'm A Cheerleader is a satirical romantic comedy, on the surface it can appear to simply be a silly film poking fun and making jokes about its subject matter, but there is more to it than that. But before I get into that lets start with our plot.

Megan is the perfect all American teen, a beautiful, popular cheerleader who's dating the school quarterback, but one day her family and friends hold an intervention for her along with ex-gay Mike. They accuse her of been a lesbian, claims Magen strongly denies even after they present several pieces of evidence including how she only has pictures of women in her locker, how she doesn’t enjoy kissing her boyfriend and perhaps the most damning of all, she is a vegetarian! Despite her protests Megan is shipped off to True Directions, a conversion camp designed to set teen's back on the true path. Though it is at the camp that she realises that she is a lesbian.  Kinda like becoming a vegetarian while at a BBQ.

The film follows Megan's journey from realising she is a lesbian, through genuinely trying to 'cure' herself and finally accepting there is nothing wrong with who she is, and her friendship with Graham, at first rocky they grown into close friends and eventually fall in love, and through their love and friendship both girls become comfortable with accepting themselves and damning anyone who disapproves.

While been true about who you is the film main message (along with 'it's okay to be gay') there are other themes that really add to what could have just been a silly comedy.  A particularly strong scene is when Jan (Katrina Phillips), the most tomboy of the girls, sporting a Mohawk and dressing in what would be seen as typically male clothing breaks down and says “I mean, everybody thinks I'm this big dyke because... 'cause I wear baggy pants, I play softball, and... and I'm not as pretty as other girls, but that doesn't make me gay. I mean, I like guys. I can't help it.” The revelation that the girl who looks the most like a stereotypical lesbian is straight is the perfect representation of one of the films best strengths, how it deals with stereotypes. At the time of its release it was criticized by some for having some characters be stereotypical, and yes while there are some of the teens that fit those stereotypes such as camp and effeminate boys and tomboyish girls is has characters that break those moulds, Megan herself is, as I said, the perfect all American teen, she is feminine in every way. The film shows that there are camp and butch people, both gay and straight, as well as what some will call 'straight acting' people on both sides as well, the film does a good job of showing this with it's mixed group of characters.

There is also a great scene where a number of the teens including, Megan and Graham, sneak out one night with the help of two former campers referred to as ex-ex-gays who's mission is to help the campers and try to show them that there is nothing wrong with been gay. Naturally Megan is shocked to discover they are at a gay bar, the wonderfully named Cock Sucker (it has a giant roster statue out front and everything), Graham convinces her to give it a try and gets her to dance with another woman. This is a turning point for Megan as she starts to see that the world of the gays is not as bad and evil as she had been taught, it's also an important scene for her and Graham's relationship.

Though religion is a common origin for homophobia and camps like these the film doesn't actually go down this path, true Christianity and God is brought up sometimes by the camp leaders but not too often.  In fact Megan is a Christian and wears a crucifix around her neck, and even at the end of the film she still has it on, another message by the film makes saying you can be gay and christian, or am I reading too much into it this time, who knows?

As much as I'm sure many of us would love to paint the people behind conversion therapy to be evil, in truth they're not, most believe they are doing what is right and are helping people, as miss guided as these views are and I am one who believe they do a lot more harm than anything else. This isn't a film that shows them as misguided, True Directions leader Mary Brown is the baddy of the story in every way but it fits the satirical nature of the film, and she is a wonderful character, the woman you love to hate.

The film has a great visual style, especially once Megan arrives at the camp, all the boys are dressed in blue while the girls in pink, part of the camps efforts to reinforce stereotypes. There is also an artificialness about the came, from the brightly coloured buildings and rooms to the plastic flowers in the garden, it's all part of Mary Brown's world, ordered, clean and perfect in her eyes. I don't know for sure but I think some scenes must have used blue and pink lighting or at least filters to add to the bizarre look. It's a good look, especially when compared to the gay bar scene and the ex-ex-gays home we see, which look normal, making the 'straight' world of the camp look strange while the 'gay' world looks normal, it's a good touch the film makers added.

The cast is great, Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan and gives a really believable performance starting off believing homosexuality is wrong and eventually coming to accept who she is, she's never shown to be homophobic in a mean way she's just a sweet girl who was raised with certain beliefs, she struggles at first but eventually come to see that many of the myths she's been taught are just that, myths, it all leads to an incredibly sweet final scene where she embraces the fact she can be the same sweet girl she always was and be gay. Clea DuVall is great as Graham as well, she starts off as the opposite of Megan, resistant to True Directions and their message, been sarcastic and resistant to their lessons and treatment, though she still goes along with it enough to pass the tests and classes and at first this seems strange, until we find out it's due to an overbearing father who blames his daughter been as lesbian as the reason his wife left, we never find out for sure if this is the case or not but Graham certainly seems to believe it as it's the threat of loosing her father as well that makes her stay for the final exam, even if he's a prat she doesn't want to lose her dad.

All the teens are great in fact, each filling their roles with buckets of personality and comedy, I don't have time to go through them all but I will mention Dante Basco (yes, Prince Zuco from Avatar) as Dolph, a boy who in once scene Megan finds kissing another boy Clayton (Kip Pardue) and tells the councillors what she saw leading to Dolph getting kicked out, this is when Megan was still taking the conversion therapy seriously after all. Later on when Megan herself leaves the camp having chose not to hide who she is anymore, and with her parents saying she is no longer welcome at home she goes to a local house run by the ex-ex-gay couple who took the kids on the gay bar trip earlier, Larry and Lloyd (Richard Moll and Wesley Mann), their home is a sort of halfway home for kids like Megan who have failed True Directions and find they have no home to go to, while there she meets Dolph again (wearing a rainbow striped outfit I would love to have!), he hugs her and thanks her for what she did, he may have failed the camp and his parents disowned him but he found here what he hadn't anywhere else, acceptance, he no longer needing to hide who he is.

Of course the teens are only one half of the film, we have the wonderful Cathy Moriarty as dominating camp founder Mary Brown, a woman who has to control ever aspect of her world with an iron fist, quick to lose her temper and especially frustrated with her son Rock (Eddie Cibrian) who is supposable straight but considering how he acts towards the other men at the camp, even simulating masturbation on a broom-handle at one point, it seems likely he is only pretending to be straight for his mother, something that seems to not fully escaper her attention. The ultimate irony of Mary Brown is her dominating personality which by her own teachings is what the man should be and that woman should be submissive, sometimes it's just fun to laugh at the hypocriticism of others.

The other camp leader is Mike played by RuPaul, he is a self proclaimed ex-gay who spends a little too much time undressing Rock with his eyes for us to believe he is truly ex in his gayness, and having RuPaul play this character, thats just brilliant on so many levels!

As you can tell I really like this film, it's a fun funny satire with a lot of heart and some good messages.  Give it a go sometime.

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