Queerleading Drama ‘Backspot’ Captures Girlhood in All Its Extremes

D.W. Waterson’s Backspot is a rare entry into the cinematic queerleading canon in the sense that it makes cheerleading its central focus while also presenting its characters’ queerness as conflict-free. On my big list of films and television shows that feature queerleaders, most of the entries most focused on cheerleading itself make queerness something to be kept secret, something that causes drama itself. But I’m a Cheerleader being the most overt example, of course. In it, the central queerleader has to attend conversion therapy (though the film indeed makes this very fun). Most of the entries more uninhibited in their presentation of queerness are less focused on cheerleading. The recent Bottoms, for example, presents characters who are out from the start and who want to have sex with cheerleaders, at least one of whom turns out to be queer, too. But while that film is loud and casual about its queerness, cheerleading really isn’t the focus, especially not the kind of competitive all-stars cheerleading at the heart of Backspot, a film that doesn’t ultimately place cheerleading at odds with its characters’ queerness but rather finds conflict and drama elsewhere.

Shortly after we meet Riley (Devery Jacobs) and Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) on the mat at the beginning of Backspot, we learn they’re girlfriends. They kiss openly in front of their other teammates. Their tossing and tumbling spills over from the mat to Riley’s house, where they eat candy, dance around, are generally goofy and unbridled in their raucous girlhood, often leaning into each other for a kiss devoid of shame or secrecy. Their tension, instead, lies elsewhere, mainly in issues of class and in how cheerleading functions for each of them, sometimes a point of connection and other times a point of disconnect, especially after Amanda, Riley, and another girl on their mid-level team end up on the Thunderhawks, an all-stars team coached by cold and intense Eileen McNamara (Evan Rachel Wood) and her assistant Devon (Thomas Antony Olajide). Riley will do anything to excel on the Thunderhawks and especially to win over the approval of Eileen. Amanda reminds her she can’t break her neck and be on bed rest for weeks; she has an actual job.

Riley’s desire to crush it on the mat is often at odds with her intense anxiety, which presents in the form of trichotillomania, Riley pulling out her eyebrows and eyelashes as her anxiety crests. She has panic attacks, too, including one that Eileen coaches her through. Later, Riley uses the same method on her mother (Shannyn Sossamon), who also clearly has anxiety of her own, as well as a cleaning compulsion and deep insecurity. It’s a fascinating moment, especially since earlier in the film Eileen accuses Riley of looking at her like she’s supposed to be her mother. Riley seeks parenting from Eileen in the face of her largely disinterested if well meaning mother. But she also parents her own mother in ways learned from Eileen. Though it never gets too deep into it, the familial dynamics and drama of Backspot act, well, like a backspot for the film, providing some emotional scaffolding to hold the story together.

Cheerleading is a sport full of contradictions and paradoxes, and Backspot explores that well. Riley is obsessed with landing every move and executing her role as backspot seamlessly, but she struggles with presentation, which in cheerleading parlance basically means looking manically happy. They’re supposed to not just smile through every routine but beam, shine bright like stars. Even as they’re having to focus intently on landing moves that test the limits of human physicality. In cheerleading, there’s brutality and beauty. Choreography comes at a cost, Amanda often tending to open wounds on Riley’s feet after practices. Much like the television series Dare Me captures the bone-breaking parts of cheerleading, Backspot similarly shows the darker side of the sport, though ultimately with a softer lens than Dare Me.

Backspot is particularly good at capturing the sort of feral and delirious moments of girlhood, like early on when Riley and Amanda scream-sing showtunes in Riley’s car (I’ve never felt more called out as a former teenaged musical theater dork in my LIFE). A sleepover in the gym transforms the space from one of immense control and discipline to a space of reckless abandonment. This delirium is also contrasted by the mundanity that often defines suburban girlhood. Riley and Amanda’s lives are frenetic but also repetitive, much like cheerleading itself. The close-up and intimate approach to filming the girls’ bodies as they tumble extends to other unexpected and ordinary parts of the film, too. A scoop going into a popcorn machine at the movie theater where Amanda works. A mop wringing out water. Some of these shots are the ones that have surprisingly lingered with me. I’m left wishing the intimacy and specificity of some of the camerawork was more equally matched by the script and story throughout. Backspot comes off a bit scattered. It’s almost fitting in the sense that Riley herself has a one-track mind about cheerleading and the Thunderhawks, but the result is a movie that feels too broad in its themes. Use of slow motion and close-ups creates a visually immersive experience, but the writing itself doesn’t zoom in as much.

Eileen and Devon as the Thunderhawks leadership, to me, represent two different approaches to queer mentorship and care. Devon is tender and sweet in his care for Riley, taking her home to sober up after he catches her underage drinking at a gay bar he’s performing at. He does her makeup to cover up the patches in her eyebrows. Eileen is all tough love and grit. She demands greatness of Riley. She implies that women like her and Riley have to work even harder and armor themselves against the world, and their shared queerness is implied here, and while I like that Backspot isn’t too didactic about it, the moment would land better if we knew a bit more about Eileen and perhaps how her queerness was viewed differently during her cheerleading career.

Backspot is sometimes almost too utopic in its portrayal of queerness in this way. It’s possible to avoid making queerness the conflict but still acknowledge how queerness shapes experiences. The Eileen/Riley dynamic is underdeveloped in this way. And at the gym sleepover, there’s a potent moment where another queer character makes fun of cheerleading for being patriarchal and exploitive, and Riley fires back about how it’s actually about their strength and agility and not how they look. Her teammate pushes back, points out the real reason she didn’t make the Thunderhawks team when she’s just as good is because she’s fat and doesn’t fit the normative mold of how a cheerleader is “supposed” to look. It’s an interesting scene, but it just sort of ends, the themes it brings up never returning. Queerness is, bizarrely, not part of this conversation at all.

I recognize that a lot of people are drawn to this type of queer storytelling, the kind that makes queerness matter-of-fact and almost inconsequential to narrative. I do like how the film plays on expectations by making Riley and Amanda’s queer relationship so accepted and chill within the heteronormative world of cheerleading. But there’s that and then there’s missed opportunities for deeper queer storytelling that actually confronts expectations for cheerleading and sports movies in general. Backspot is indeed a visceral and dynamic sports film so centered on girlhood in ways that feel exciting and original, but a lot of that work is done by the directing more than the script itself. Regardless, it’s a striking entry into the queerleading canon, and it’s full of noteworthy performances from top to bottom.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 861 articles for us.

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