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No Laughing Matter

Cheerleader proves that gay "recovery" therapy is still too controversial a subject for comedy

It would be the easiest thing in the world to write off But I'm a Cheerleader, the story of a teenager discovering her sexual identity through a program designed to repress it, as a Saturday Night Live sketch awkwardly inflated to feature length. But when you start looking deeper into the real-life stories that inspired this satirical take on gay and lesbian "recovery" therapies, it's not so easily brushed away, for many of the most absurd things on view in this film are absolutely true. Director Jamie Babbit and screenwriter Brian Wayne Peterson haven't attacked their target as effectively as they might, but as mild as it may be, Cheerleader underscores the fact that gender roles are ideological in nature. That fact has led to considerable discomfort in reviewers who wouldn't want to touch the issue with the proverbial ten-foot pole.

Cheerleader centers on a bubbly high schooler named Megan (Natasha Lyonne) who hasn't really given much thought as to why she's starting to find the other girls on her cheerleading squad so alluring. But her parents (Bud Cort and Mink Stole, of all people) have certainly gotten wise to their offspring's libido. That's why they've had her carted off to True Directions, an intervention program designed to turn budding gays and lesbians into perfect heterosexual citizens. Run by a woman with the suspiciously plain-wrap name of Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), whose demeanor suggests Martha Stewart as a dominatrix, True Directions looks like a candy-colored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Pinks (for girls) and blues (for boys) predominate in the hellish, oversize doll's house of a place. And instead of Conrad Veidt's Cesare the Somnambulist, the chief factotum is an out-of-drag RuPaul. He's in charge of getting the boys in properly masculine shape -- through sports-- while Moriarty's Mary sets the girls to work cooking and cleaning.

Happily, Megan finds a direction that True Directions didn't have in mind: The very "femme" young miss meets the perfect "butch" in the snarlingly cynical form of Graham (Clea DuVall), a girl whose sexual orientation no amount of reprogramming is going to alter. In no time at all, love is in bloom and revolt is in the air, as the girls proceed to reveal True Directions for the teetering house of cards that it is. Nothing unusual about this: Love Conquers All, particularly the Powers That Be, is standard operating procedure for comedy. Similarly standard-issue (yet entertaining nonetheless) are jokes about boys who throw "like a girl," and raunchy gags involving Mary's studpuppy son, Rock (Eddie Cibrian), whose butchness fails to conceal the fact that he's gayer than RuPaul in drag.

And baby makes three: Clea DuVall (left) and Natasha Lyonne really try to grasp the concept of the nuclear family.
And baby makes three: Clea DuVall (left) and Natasha Lyonne really try to grasp the concept of the nuclear family.

Still, this all takes a backseat to the Megan-Graham love match and its striking parallel to the true story of Exodus International, an "ex-gay" ministry whose founders met, fell in love and abandoned the organization they helped found in order to fight it. One Nation Under God, a 1993 documentary by Teodoro Maniaci and Francine Rzeznik (now available on home video), recounts the saga of Exodus and the network of ex-gay ministries it created, which continue to this day to drain the finances of misguided parents and the brains of their hapless offspring. Since such organizations are religiously affiliated, they have no worries about paying taxes or being investigated for fraud. Moreover, once the psychobabble and the veneer of piety are peeled away, ex-gay methodology is a fairly simple affair. Just regard same-sexuality as "acts" separate from the individuals who commit them, get said individuals to refrain from said acts -- or at least claim that they do -- and voilà! You got yourself an ex-gay.

Not too high a standard there, you know. We live in a culture where hypocrisy rules, appearance is all, and "do as I say, not as I do" is the glue that holds the fraud of "don't ask, don't tell" together. But getting to the bottom of that requires a very different sort of movie. And it's most definitely not a comedy.

 
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