The romantic comedy genre tends to cop a lot of flack for spreading negative messages about socially constructed gender roles and topical social issues. People like to point out the fact that it tends to reflect the most traditional, safe ideas and target middle class, conservative audiences who are not comfortable with challenging the status quo. These criticisms do hold some weight, as The Ugly Truth (2009) implied that career women are essentially inept and need a sexist man’s to take control when the going gets tough. It is also difficult to name mainstream examples of the genre that aim to directly tackle social issues or approach any content that gets too serious. On one level, this can be a positive thing, as preachy message movies can be difficult to stomach. When a message is subtly folded into an entertaining narrative, it can have more of an impact on an audience. At the same time, it would be nice if those who work within the genre could take a few more risks. Not every romantic comedy needs to be about straight white couples who immediately get married and have four children after knowing each other for two weeks. 

When But I’m a Cheerleader was first released in 1999, it broke the mold by employing the tropes of a typical romantic comedy while also centering members of the LGBTQA+ community within the narrative. The gay best friend trope had been popularised by My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) but this film aimed to bring lesbians to the fore. It also targeted some of the social constructs that prevented them from coming out of the closet.

In challenging some of the stereotypes that have been commonly associated with the lesbian community, writer-director Jamie Babbit explores this world through the eyes of Megan (Natasha Lyonne). She is a fairly popular cheerleader from a small American town, who aims to please her parents and endure the experience of having to kiss her boyfriend Jared (Brandt Wille). Even though she often fantasises about girls, she has never thought of herself as a lesbian and is shocked when her parents send her to True Directions, a reparative therapy camp. Initially, she wants to prove that she is not a lesbian and return to her old life as soon as possible. 

The camp’s owner, Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), emotionally abuses her ‘patients’ and convinces them that it is wrong to engage in sexual acts with a person of their own gender. This causes Megan to become increasingly afraid of exploring her own sexuality. She also develops an adversarial relationship with the rebellious Graham (Clea DuVall). The two frequently argue and Graham questions why Megan doesn’t put up more of a resistance when faced with Brown’s homophobic attacks. When Megan learns that Graham has also been put in a vulnerable position by her parents, the two begin to relate to one another. As this bond develops into a romance, the two have to consider how they will deal with living in a world where lesbian relationships are not accepted. 

The stakes in this story are unusually high, so it is something of a relief to have the serious content balanced out by a sweet love story. I don’t think that this film fully gets its arms around the very serious problem that it is dealing with, and yet I also appreciate its unabashed sincerity. Absolutely nobody hedged their bets during the making of this film and everybody chooses to swing for the fences. Even the production designers elect to introduce an unusual amount of stylisation into the appearance of the reparative therapy camp. The patients are told that they are abnormal and do not conform to the standards of ordinary society but nothing in the camp feels ordinary. Bright, garish objects are meant to stand in for the knick-knacks that would appear in a warm, comfortable family home. Instead of appearing to be reassuringly mundane and familiar, the camp looks like it is trying too hard to imitate the real thing. This dichotomy is mirrored in the behaviour that the patients display when they are successfully passing as straight people. Their smiles are too tight, their touches are far too aggressive and there is always a hint of fear and confusion in their eyes. They are clearly miserable and they can never fully conceal this fact.

It is a shame that the social commentary doesn’t quite work in conjunction with a lot of the jokes that are woven into the script. The obvious slapstick humour now feels outdated (twenty years later) and some of the actors, particularly those who play the parents, can go too broad in their efforts to earn laughs. There is never a point where the film manages to elicit uproarious laughter. When it does earn a chuckle or two, it is mostly in the quieter, character focused moments. When Melanie Lynskey appears as one of the more neurotic patients at the camp and starts wiggling her eyebrows, it is a moment to be thankful for. She does not have any ‘laugh lines’ but her oddness is amusing enough to carry her through several scenes. When there is a contrived gag on show here, it tends to fall flat or feel so unoriginal than it insults the intelligence of the audience. The screenwriters handle a difficult subject with delicate grace, so it seems unfortunate that they were not equally capable of cranking out slightly more inspired gags. 

This does not rise to the level of a Nora Ephron classic and that stops it from entering into the pantheon of classic 1990s entries into the genre. Even when you appreciate the sweetness of the finale and the finesse of the performances, there is still the feeling that it doesn’t quite reach its ceiling in terms of potential. We are fortunate enough to live in a time when there are more romantic comedies getting made about homosexual couples. That does not mean that But I’m a Cheerleader does not have an important place in history and its power to entertain remains undiminished. 

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Lionsgate presents But I’m a Cheerleader – Director’s Cut on Blu-ray from 21 June, 2021

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