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It’s Pride Month Which Means You Have to Watch 'Backspot'

By Sara Clements | Film | June 3, 2024 |

By Sara Clements | Film | June 3, 2024 |


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The backspot is the leader in cheerleading. Their skill and attention can make or break a stunt. If you’re not good at it, this could mean a potential injury for the cheerleader lifted into the air who relies on the backspot for their safety. D. W. Waterson’s Backspot, with a screenplay by Joanne Sarazen, focuses mainly on a girl given this task. It’s a big responsibility for Riley (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), and one she may not be skilled enough yet to take on. But she’s ambitious. It’s the ambition and athleticism on display in Backspot that makes the audience come out of it with a whole new appreciation for the sport. Despite struggling to be acknowledged as one, that’s exactly what it is: A sport.

The film is electric. It’s energetic. From the very first frame, we are thrown right into the film as a squad practices a routine. The camera in a first-person view delivers a dizzying immersion into many flips and tricks. The camera and sound design work in tandem to create an almost tangible quality to the pounding of feet as they hit the mat; the sound of breath as each cheerleader prepares for a flip; the appearance of sweat dripping down their arms after a long, grueling practice. Every cheer scene is thrilling to watch and heightened by the intensity of a synch score. There’s immense physicality on display, with amazing stuntwork.

In one scene, Riley watches as a more advanced squad, the Thunder Hawks, practices a routine. She longs to be in that gym with them, and because that squad is down three girls from injuries, she might have a shot. When she does make it on the Thunder Hawks, along with her girlfriend, Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo), and another cheerleader, Rachel (Noa DiBerto), they find themselves thrown right into a way more extreme playing field, with two coaches, Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood) and Devon (Thomas Antony Olajide), who want to push them to their limits and beyond. Riley wants to go beyond her limits, especially to impress Eileen (Wood delivering a stoic, no-bullshit performance), who she begins to idolize as a fellow queer woman in the sport, but Riley may not have the skill to go all the way. She gets beaten, bruised, and blistered, and the pressure to perform starts getting in the way of her relationship with Amanda.

Jacobs plays a character who puts herself under so much strain that she has to capture many physical manifestations of his pressure to be the best at what she does. There’s lots of blood, sweat, tears, and even panic attacks. Through her performance, you feel the grueling nature of cheerleading, especially in the film’s unique decision to give her trichotillomania to show how her anxiety and stress manifest. She obsessively picks hair off her eyebrows, the sound design and close-ups focusing on this to queasy effect and emphasize her anxiety.

This manifestation seems to point to her family dynamics. She has no relationship with her father, despite him being in the home, and she has a mother who always seems to need a boost of confidence. However, Riley’s home life isn’t given the depth it needs to carry the significance it seems to point to. But there’s an interesting contrast because of Riley’s well-to-do home life vs. Amanda’s lower-class one. Amanda can’t afford to risk her neck for the Thunder Hawks because she has to work to help her single mother support her younger siblings.

While tension does form in the queer relationship at the film’s center, it comes around. Not falling for the trope of doomed romance. Jacobs and Rutendo have a carefree and joyous energy that’s infectious, and the film makes a point to show them as just regular girls who are able to forget any stressors and just have fun. There are many sweet moments between them and you get wrapped up in this relationship, where the film gives it space to live outside of the suffocating cheerleading environment. It’s also just so refreshing to see so many queer characters and queer performers on screen.

Waterson tackles many misconceptions about cheerleading. It seems to have always been looked at as male gaze-y, like it was a sport only to attract male sports fans. But Backspot shows that what cheerleaders do isn’t for anyone else’s benefit but themselves. It’s about the athleticism that goes into the performance. It’s about doing “mind-blowing shit,” as Riley puts it. They may not be doing it for men, but the film acknowledges that appearance still plays a factor, as a girl more skilled than Riley, and perhaps even everyone else, doesn’t make the Thunder Hawks for the suspected reason that she isn’t thin enough. While, with a longer runtime, these themes could have been explored more, as well as creating more fleshed-out characters overall, it sticks the landing for queer representation onscreen.

‘Backspot’ can currently be streamed on VOD/Digital.