Framed by a mass of thick and unruly red hair, Natasha Lyonne‘s face fires off contradictions. The eyes are sharp and challenging, the lips full and sexy, the round cheeks smooth youthful cuteness over a countenance that flutters between disdain, indifference and exasperation. She’s the girl in high school who was unconventional without trying (or visibly suffering), and whose funky beauty was matched by genuine warmth. All of that is why the opening moments of But I‘m a Cheerleader are some of the funniest. Lyonne’s beam and twinkle as she bounces through a cheerleading routine in unison with the other girls, her hair neat and perfectly restrained, is a sly, subtle and knowing sendup of conformity and repression in just a few frames. The rest of the movie beats you over the head with jokes, and though funny in parts, it‘s never this smart again.
Megan (Lyonne) is a popular cheerleader with all the accouterments: perfectly coiffed hair, a dumb-jock boyfriend and a closet full of tastefully retro dresses that she wears with a straight face. (The film is calculatedly ironic and hip, but Megan isn’t.) When her family and friends — including the boyfriend she French-kisses with a hilarious mixture of boredom and disgust — decide, on the basis of the posters of female supermodels pinned to her locker, that she must be a lesbian, they stage an intervention and send her off to True Directions, a reprogramming boot camp for gay teenagers whose staff boasts Cathy Moriarty (scarily thin) as Mary Brown, who runs the place, and RuPaul in male drag as Mike, a counselor and former client.
Once there, Megan meets Graham (Clea Duvall), a scowling, chain-smoking (and surprisingly affecting) young dyke who refuses to apologize for anything. Other students include a cool Asian-American kid, another sulky dykette and Star Maps‘ Douglas Spain as (yawn) a sassy Latino spitfire. Eddie Cibrian (the masseur in Living Out Loud, now seen on television’s Third Watch) plays Moriarty‘s hunky gardener son, who runs around in daisy-dukes while suggestively stroking the handles of his work tools. As the kids form alliances or make enemies, romances blossom, including one between Graham and Megan. Meanwhile, Ms. Brown roars and tears through the school in high camp, struggling to reform her charges as well as her incorrigible son.
Juggling social satire and pop-culture parody, director Jamie Babbit, working from a script by Brian Wayne Peterson, misses as often as she hits. She’s collapsed the ‘50s and ’90s onto a single plane, the better to compare and contrast Megan‘s demure clothing and good-girl attitude with Graham’s debauched school uniform and messy hair, as well as Mary Brown‘s Father Knows Best model of heterosexual family life with the reality of Graham’s working mom. Babbit seems to be trying to illustrate the ways in which homophobia and rigid gender ideals are not only intertwined, but have remained consistent over time. But what she‘s really done is underscore just how dated her own movie is. Too many of the jokes are old hat (the sissy who shrieks and runs from the football, the girls’ dorm with its exaggerated frills and pink bed covers). The gay boys — unlike the fledgling lesbians — never transcend their broad comic outlines to become actual people. Spain, who is visibly uncomfortable in femme mode, is awful as a neck-swiveling, wisecracking young queen, devoid of the sullen sexiness the actor exuded in Star Maps.
What finally saves But I‘m a Cheerleader are the performances of Lyonne and Duvall, who burrow deep beneath the kitsch to retrieve characters we actually care about. The two have a warm chemistry which, even when they’re sparring, elevates the movie above its trying-to-be-camp blueprint and gives it heart. They‘re better than the film, whose most lingering impression is one of untapped possibilities and hamstrung potential.