Out director Jamie Babbit is busy these days. Her new film The Quiet began opening in theaters this month, and she’s currently at work on the feature film The Itty Bitty Titty Committee. But before all this, she wrote and directed the 1999 cult hit But I’m a Cheerleader, a comedic look at the lunacy that is gay rehabilitation — think ex-gay movement at summer camp.
The movie focuses on Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a high school cheerleader who is suspected by her friends and family of being — gasp! — a lesbian. One afternoon Megan comes home to face her very own intervention, during which she vehemently denies being gay (she is a cheerleader, after all). The evidence, however, is stacked against her. She eats tofu, decorates her room with a Melissa Etheridge poster and Georgia O’Keefe bedding, and she does not like to make out with her football player boyfriend.
Despite her objections, Megan is sent off to True Directions, a sort of “homosexuals anonymous” (as Megan’s mother calls it) that claims to turn gay kids straight. At True Directions, the gay young men work toward heterosexuality by chopping wood, fixing cars and playing football, while the lesbians aim to become straight through training in domestic skills and child rearing. Mary (Cathy Moriarty) and Mike (a goatee-sporting RuPaul Charles) run the program in a house that was surely decorated by John Waters.
After her arrival, Megan meets a gaggle of other True Directions teens. Among the pack of stereotypes, there’s Andre (Douglas Spain), the ultra-effeminate “actor, dancer, homosexual,” and Hilary (Melanie Lynskey), who hails from an all-girls boarding school. Last but not least, there is Graham (Clea DuVall), an aloof young woman who smokes, swears and is deeply offended by cheerleaders.
Graham, the only one who understands that True Directions is ludicrous, knows she must finish the program or else be disowned by her affluent father. Despite — or maybe because of — a rocky start, it is easy to see that Megan and Graham will fall for one another and end up jeopardizing their chances of making it to graduation.
In fact, the trajectory of the movie is so predictable a chimpanzee could guess the way things turn out: The girls enter into a romance; they are soon discovered; one of them is kicked out of the program. I am not in the habit of revealing the endings of movies, but I will say that it ends just as you would assume a light-hearted, satirical lesbian comedy would. In other words, this is not the lesbian version of Moulin Rouge.
But the predictability does not end with the plot. The film’s characters are rarely allowed to become anything other than stereotypes. Even the central relationship between Megan and Graham, while sweet (due to some great chemistry between Lyonne and DuVall), doesn’t get enough screen time.
Even though what’s going to happen is obvious, that doesn’t make But I’m a Cheerleader a bad movie. The film offers consistent laughs and enough good fun to be a fluffy, enjoyable film. The comedy comes from knowing just how pointless and silly True Directions really is.
In fact, the key to enjoying Cheerleader is taking it for what it is: a humorous look at something so serious — the ex-gay movement — it’s just plain absurd. A more nuanced plot and additional character development may have made for a better film, but a movie like Cheerleader is meant to make you laugh, not to be swept up in complex plots and deep, tortured characters (I recommend Lost and Delirious for that).
Cheerleader could have been written as a dramatic analysis of gay rehabilitation programs and how it affects those that go through it, but thank goodness it was not. Sometimes a situation needs to be laughed at instead of dwelled on and cried over. But I’m a Cheerleader certainly has its flaws, but it recognizes just how ridiculous places like True Directions are, and it allows us to laugh at those very institutions.