A teenage lesbian comedy with the insouciance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, But I’m a Cheerleader is the debut feature of Jamie Babbit, a director with terrific potential who’s still at an awkward stage of development. Set in an adolescent homosexual-rehab camp, the film, on its most obvious level, is a satire of the ex-gay movement. But more subversively, it’s a send-up of gender stereotyping in all its inescapability. Cheerleader is not as skillful, subtle, or hilarious as Some Like It Hot, but its anti-essentialism vis-à-vis gender roles is just as sharp and exhilarating. The fortune-cookie version of Babbit’s message: Never play a role that doesn’t please you and never pretend to have a desire you don’t feel is your own.
Megan (Natasha Lyonne), the eponymous cheerleader, is sent to gay rehab by her straitlaced parents, who’ve figured out something she’s yet to understand. They’re sure that their daughter’s vegetarianism, her fondness for Melissa Etheridge, and her lack of responsiveness to her boyfriend’s demands to suck face add up to a lesbianism which must be nipped in the bud. Megan, who just wants to be normal (and has never considered that visions of creamy-thighed cheerleaders might not dance in every girl’s head), goes along with the program until she falls in love with Graham (Clea DuVall), the baddest girl in the camp. It’s a case of the irresistible attraction of opposites. Graham knows she’s gay (and she likes it), but she’s determined to put on enough of an act to graduate from rehab and claim her car, her college tuition, and her trust fund.
The girls’ dormitory (decorated in a Home Shopping Network version of brothel chic, all orange and hot pink plastic and lace) is the scene of whatever minimal expressions of desire got past the sexist and homophobic eyes of the MPAA ratings board. Babbit escaped the dreaded NC-17 only by excising the word muff-diving and a shot of a girl’s hand touching another girl’s belly. But Babbit seems also to have applied a form of self-censorship. The R-rated Cheerleader is too PG-13 for its own good and too juvenile for its target audience: lesbians in search of a romantic comedy. The raunchy edge that cuts through the fairy-tale syrup in Babbit’s short Sleeping Beauties (an embryonic version of Cheerleader) is missing here, making the film more one-note than it should be.
The performances are a mixed bag. Cathy Moriarty is over-the-top as the camp’s prurient headmistress, but Eddie Cibrian as Rock, her butch-queen son and groundskeeper, who delights in flaunting his tree cutter—and his package—and an out-of-drag RuPaul Charles, as the ex-gay boys’ group leader who can’t keep his eyes off Rock, have a suitably light touch. Lyonne makes Megan’s initial confusion quite moving, but too often she substitutes petulance for the curiosity and determination the role requires. DuVall, however, is fabulous as the film’s object of desire. At once sullen and sweet, with a sassy mouth, eyes that see through everyone’s bullshit including her own, and the hiked-shoulder stance of a hockey player, she seems both aloof and available. Unlike most of her fellow actors, DuVall knows that comedy is more than mugging and that giving her character an interior life doesn’t weigh her down.