Broadly conceived and schematically directed, “But I’m a Cheerleader” is a shallow, only mildly entertaining satire about a rehabilitation camp for gays and lesbians. Basically a short extended to feature length, the movie benefits from a well-grounded performance by Natasha Lyonne as the vivacious teenager sent for sexual (dis)orientation, but suffers from Cathy Moriarty’s irritatingly one-note rendition as the camp’s homophobic counselor. Fine Line should expect modest returns for a comedy that has limited crossover appeal beyond the immediate target audience of young, undiscriminating gay viewers.
In its current form, pic comes across as a retro item, made in the mold of John Waters’ shockingly profane satires, but without Waters’ wit or edge. As a conceptual movie, “Cheerleader” offers an excellent premise and a hilarious point of departure, but is undone by poor execution, particularly in the writing and directing departments.
Brian Wayne Peterson’s script has a most promising beginning. Megan (Lyonne), an innocent high school cheerleader, lives with her straitlaced parents and engages in all the rituals expected of a 17-year-old teenager, including lengthy but not terribly exciting kisses from her b.f. Too forthright, outspoken and normal for her repressive environment, she is soon suspected of incipient lesbianism, and her parents send her to True Directions, a rehab camp in the desert.
The place is run under the strict, all-seeing leadership of Mary (Moriarty, who’s made up to look and also acts like a caricature of Faye Dunaway). At first, Megan dutifully embraces the deprogramming, hoping to return to her life of boyfriends, football games and cheerleading as soon as possible.
Modeled on rehab clinics for alcoholics and drug addicts, the center subjects its residents to a five-step program, which also gives the film its plodding structure (step one is Admit You’re a Homosexual). Along the way, Megan befriends Graham (Clea DuVall), a rebellious girl who makes her realize that her sexual orientation is not as stable as she had imagined.
Pandering to the audience without subtlety, the film makes the most obvious choices. The teenagers in the camp are all stereotypical characters, particularly the boys, who are mostly whining sissies. Same applies to Mary’s son, Rock (Eddie Cibrian), a hunk in tight T-shirt and jeans whose raw sexuality offers irresistible temptation to the boys.
The movie is sporadically funny, but, considering that such camps do exist, this is a satire that barks but doesn’t bite. In her feature directorial debut, Jamie Babbit doesn’t show much facility for the technical aspects of film; most scenes are statically staged. She’s also not very good with her ensemble. At times, one gets the impression that the director’s job was restricted chiefly to casting, which is canny: Megan’s parents are played by the iconic Bud Cort, still best known for “Harold and Maude,” and John Waters regular Mink Stole. Flamboyant transvestite RuPaul is cast as an ex-gay guide, and the charming Julie Delpy makes a brief appearance as a lipstick lesbian.
Alix Friedberg’s costumes are colorful, and Rachel Kamerman’s production design is highly stylized, dominated by pink and blue, emulating the scheme of the far superior gender-bender comedy “Ma vie en rose.”