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Backspot

“Backspot” does for competitive cheerleading what “The Novice” did for rowing: It depicts the pursuit of athletic excellence to the point of obsession through a specifically queer lens. Both sports may look refined on the outside, but they require grueling effort and intense dedication. And for us as viewers, they offer an intimate glimpse into an elite world we can admire without driving our bodies to the breaking point.  

Non-binary director D.W. Waterson clearly appreciates what these young female athletes can do – and make no mistake, they are athletes – while also examining the inherent contradictions of their sport. These teenagers must be pretty and powerful, sparkly yet steely, feminine yet muscular. Waterson announces this contrast early with an opening sequence from the point of view of a cheerleader performing a series of back handsprings across the floor. From inside this tumbling pass, it’s dizzying, but the tumbler herself is in complete control.   

No one is more preoccupied with control on this team than Riley, whose position gives the film its title. The backspot is both the leader and anchor for all those elaborate stunts: She’s the one on the ground who ensures the tiny girls land safely after twisting and flying to the sky. Similarly, Devery Jacobs serves as the sturdy base of this movie, even as her character is going through some emotional acrobatics of her own. The “Reservation Dogs” and “Echo” actress presents a facade of unstoppable ambition, while insecurity and anxiety roil underneath.   

When Riley, her girlfriend, Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo), and their mutual best friend, Rachel (Noa DiBerto), get the opportunity to cheer for the more prestigious Thunder Hawks squad in their Canadian neighborhood, they jump at it, both literally and figuratively. The team’s leader is the exacting Eileen, played deliciously by a withering Evan Rachel Wood. Thomas Antony Olajide gets some choice one-liners as Eileen’s supercilious second in command, who will only allow himself to show so much sympathy: “Don’t call me sir, I’m 32, that hurts my feelings,” he warns the newbies.  

you’ll find little of the knowingly playful behavior you’d see in a movie like “Bring It On.” This is deadly serious business, where anything short of absolute victory is considered a failure. That pressure heightens whatever instincts already existed in these girls, for better and for worse. Glimpses into their home lives are efficient and revealing: Riley’s emotionally distant mom (Shannyn Sossamon) maintains a tidy, modern kitchen, and her dad is constantly absent. No wonder she seeks the approval of her icy coach. Meanwhile, the more level-headed Amanda lives in a cramped, working-class home that’s abuzz with kids and laughter. The reckless party girl Rachel serves as an amusing counterpoint to the two of them, and DiBerto’s lively performance offers welcome comic relief within this toxic environment.  

But Joanne Sarazen's script lacks characterization elsewhere. Do these girls go to high school or do anything but eat, sleep, and cheer? Maybe that’s the point, though, as a montage of actual blood, sweat, and tears suggests: This is their entire life. And Waterson, as the film’s editor, relies too heavily on the image of Riley plucking out her eyebrow hairs, one by one, in extreme close-ups to indicate her manic inner state. On the other end of the spectrum, though, they present a spectacular finale: a long, single take as the Thunder Hawks finally perform their routine on the competition stage, shiny smiles on their faces and glittery bows atop their heads. The fact that Jacobs and her co-stars must act while being acrobatic makes the performances even more impressive.  

The final moments of “Backspot” will probably frustrate viewers who want to see their characters learn affirming lessons and evolve in positive ways. But as a realistic portrayal of an all-consuming drive, it sticks the landing.

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Backspot movie poster

Backspot (2024)

93 minutes

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