Friday July 21, 2000

     "But I'm a Cheerleader" is the result of the kind of good intentions with which the road to hell is paved.
     Director Jamie Babbit and co-writer Brian Wayne Petersen set out to send up the cruel absurdity of aversion therapy designed to turn gays into straights, but the task proves way beyond their abilities. Their jaunty, superficial humor tends more to confirm homosexual stereotypes for easy laughter than to skewer the horror of trying to change an individual's sexual orientation against his or her will.
     This picture is too puny and square to accomplish such a task; what is needed is satire at its most corrosive, humor at its most outrageous--a challenge better suited to someone like Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Doll House," "Happiness") or Miguel Arteta and Mike White ("Chuck & Buck").
     Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan, a pretty, peppy high school cheerleader whose burgeoning attraction to her own sex is noticed by everybody but herself. Megan is an innocent, the daughter of a pious, purse-lipped couple (Bud Cort, and John Waters regular Mink Stole) who finally decide they have no recourse but to pack her off to the countryside. There, in a Victorian mansion painted candy colors inside and out, Cathy Moriarty's Mary Brown presides over her True Directions institution.
     This Nurse Ratched of aversion therapy administers her five-step program to heterosexuality to a bunch of gay kids with the help of ex-gay assistant Mike (RuPaul Charles, out of drag). The hapless teens are browbeaten into admitting to being homosexual--something Megan doesn't realize she is till she falls into Mrs. Brown's clutches--and then submitted to a barrage of crude behavior modification: For example, girls are taught how to look and behave in a more traditionally feminine manner; boys, more masculine.
     The process boils down to bullying the kids into dissembling and struggling to exercise willpower over what stimulates them sexually. Mrs. Brown, who doesn't seem to notice that her hunky gardener son (Eddie Cibrian) is gay, has a simple technique: Anyone who disagrees with her views is told that he or she is in a state of denial. As Mrs. Brown, Moriarty carries on in a near-constant state of shrill hysteria, but the filmmakers merely make fun of her rather than challenge her assumptions.
     Graham (Clea DuVall, who looks like a teenage Glenda Jackson) refuses to kid herself, and eventually she and Megan are drawn to each other as the program wears on. But it's a risky business, because Babbit and Petersen, to their credit, do make clear that if Mrs. Brown's charges flunk her course, they risk being disowned by their parents.
     RuPaul is as funny out of drag as he is in it, and one wishes he, Stole and Cort were in a far better movie; Lyonne and DuVall are appealing and convincing. In an era in which gay men and lesbians continue to face prejudice that results in assaults both political and physical, it's hard to find anything very funny about "But I'm a Cheerleader."


But I'm a Cheerleader, 2000. R, for strong language, sexual content involving teens. A Lions Gate Films presentation. Director Jamie Babbit. Producers Andrea Sperling, Leanna Creel. Executive producers Michael Burns, Marc Butan. Screenplay by Brian Wayne Petersen, from a story by Babbit. Cinematographer Jules LaBarthe. Editor Cecily Rhett. Music Pat Irwin. Costumes Alix Friedberg. Production designer Rachel Kamerman. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Natasha Lyonne as Megan. Clea DuVall as Graham. RuPaul Charles as Mike. Cathy Moriarty as Mary Brown.