But I’m a Cheerleader is most certainly a cult classic in 2021, but it faced a relatively hostile reception when it came out in 1999. Unsurprisingly, it had some fans in the gay media, but outside of Roger Ebert and a few other critics it was generally dismissed as a “John Waters knock-off”. The film owes a undeniable influence to Waters, and his long-time collaborator Mink Stole has a fun bit part in the film, but it’s very much its own movie. There is also a deliberate visual aesthetic on display in its garish use of blue and pink—clearly a pun on social constructs around gender, but also inspired by the house colours from Edward Scissorhands.
Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, a teenage girl who is a cheerleader with a football-player boyfriend. She is clearly a lesbian but hasn’t quite figured it out yet for herself. Her homophobic parents spot it, however, and stage an “intervention.” They send her to True Directions, a gay conversion camp that is as depicted in the most ridiculous fashion humanly possible. This is a film where RuPaul as conversion-camp coach gives an Oscar-winning delivery of the line “I, myself, was once a gay. Now I’m an ex-gay.”
The script is very funny, and deliberately plays into stereotypes. This may rub some people the wrong way, but it’s a good-natured film. The film makes the “straight” characters less likeable and stranger than the queer characters. It also satirises both the religious right but also the gay community, which is a smart move. It walks that thin line between goofy and heartfelt, a lesson director Jamie Babbit undoubtedly learned from watching John Waters films. It’s also a much more successful film when it comes to looking at gay conversion therapy than insufferably earnest Oscar-bait crap like Boy Erased, because it shows the clear absurdity of “praying the gay away.” the more recent The Miseducation of Cameron Post, whilst a more realistic film than But I’m a Cheerleader, is also successful because it sees the inherent absurdity of the situation.
The film’s cast is absolutely insane as well. Natasha Lyonne’s career sadly took a serious downturn after this film, but in the last decade she has carved out one of the most impressive comebacks in recent years, mainly on Netflix shows like Russian Doll (which Babbit directed a large of chunk of) and Orange is the New Black. Lyonne manages to portrays the character’s sweet but clueless nature, but never falls into the ridiculousness that’s written in for the rest of the cast, so she anchors the film. Clea DuVall plays Graham, who becomes Megan’s girlfriend—Clea and Natasha were friends before the film so they already had built-in chemistry. Melanie Lynskey plays the stuck-up girl who really wants to go “straight.” I didn’t even realise Lynskey was in the film till I saw the Zoom reunion clip on the disc—she is one of the most underused actresses alive. The rest of the cast includes BUD CORT!, Cathy Moriarty as the hard-ass True Directions founder Mary, and two actresses who have much bigger careers in the years since, Michelle Williams and Julie Delpy (whose character is simply known as “Lipstick Lesbian”.)
Overall But I’m a Cheerleader has deservedly gained its cult film status as THE lesbian teen movie, even though it didn’t reach its intended audience at the time. It faced a battle with the MPAA over a nothing oral sex scene, which just proved the MPAA’s implicit homophobia. It preaches a message of love yourself, be who you want to be and live up to only your own expectations. The message is still very relevant, especially with a recent increase of anti-gay rhetoric from the right-wing, including “ex-gay” Milo Yiannopoulos planning to open… you guessed it, a gay conversion centre in Florida, and the openly gay Dave Rubin saying “decent gay people” need to combat “LGBTQ+ activism.” I strongly suspect Rubin may be the first person to sign up for Milo’s latest grift.
The disc includes a director’s cut, which isn’t much longer than the previous cuts but extends a few sequences and adds a couple of short scenes. The extras are a newly recorded commentary from Jamie Babbit, costume designer Alix Friedberg, and production designer Rachel Kamerman; and a zoom reunion with Babbit and most of the cast. The missing member is RuPaul, which is a shame, but he is rather busy these days, after all. There is vintage featurette with on-set interviews with Babbit and the cast. Another new extra is an interview with composer Pat Irwin conducted by Babbit. Finally, there is a very early short film from Babbit, which isn’t very good. It’s a shame that Babbit’s 1999 short Sleeping Beauties couldn’t be included, because it has a similar aesthetic and sense of humour to But I’m a Cheerleader and starred DuVall as well.