Sunday, October 1, 2023
HomeentertainmentMovie News‘Backspot’ Review: Devery Jacobs and Evan Rachel Wood in a Perceptive Queer...

‘Backspot’ Review: Devery Jacobs and Evan Rachel Wood in a Perceptive Queer Cheerleading Drama

Cheerleading is brutal business in Backspot.

A GoPro-style opening sequence captures its young female athletes at work, sprinting and flipping and pounding the floor so hard it sounds liable to shatter. Later, we get close-ups of blistered feet, bruised arms, a bloody nose plugged up with a tampon. Through director D.W. Waterson’s camera, we register the tremble of their muscles as they hoist each other into the air, or the pain on their faces as they stretch their legs into splits.


The Bottom Line A sensitive and stylish coming-of-age journey.

And precisely none of this effort is meant to be visible. When it is, they’re reprimanded: “You’re making it look hard. You need to make it look easy,” an imperious coach, Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood), scolds Riley (Reservation Dogs‘ Devery Jacobs). But the tension is a familiar one for the teenager. An anxious perfectionist, Riley spends her whole life trying not to let the cracks show. Backspot captures that inner turmoil with sensitivity and style, if not always with the ambition required to vault it to a more elite level.

At the point when we meet Riley, she’s a mid-level cheerleader whose life includes blissful afternoons with Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo), her girlfriend and teammate, and stilted evenings with her perpetually edgy mother, Tracy (Shannyn Sossamon). The bulk of it, however, is devoted to her chosen sport — practicing it, training for it, thinking about it. If she has friends outside the team or obligations outside the athletic schedule (like, say, going to school), we get barely a whiff of them. Initially, then, the news that Riley and Amanda have been chosen to join a top-tier squad comes as a giddy shock to both. But with the dream promotion comes a crushing pressure to perform, which threatens to alienate Riley from her loved ones and even from herself.

Though Backspot is shot through with a sense of unease that occasionally flirts with horror, the actual narrative contours of Joanne Sarazen’s elliptical script are relatively modest. There are few shocking twists or fiery confrontations. Riley’s journey is built instead on smaller, more internal shifts — through the note of wonder that creeps into her voice as she starts to see Eileen as a queer role model, or the sourness that subsequently seeps into her dynamic with Amanda. The world is sketched out through telling details, like the sharp contrast between Amanda’s crowded but cozy home and Riley’s spotless but chilly one, rather than labored exposition. In time, Riley’s path leads her toward a reconciliation between the person she’s expected to be, the person she wants to be, and the person she truly is. Jacobs‘ magnetic performance alerts us to every tiny miscalculation or epiphany along the way.

The narrow scope has its limitations. A glimpse of Eileen eating leftover takeout alone in her car or Eileen’s assistant coach, Devon (Thomas Antony Olajide), blowing off steam in a gay club after hours hint at full lives that extend beyond the frame, but neither is allowed enough time to truly reveal their depths. (Less prominent characters like Riley’s mom are reduced to symbols and plot devices.) Themes of class and sexuality add intriguing texture to Riley’s story, but are touched upon too lightly to carry any real weight. A significant amount of Backspot‘s 93 minutes is devoted to montages of Riley at play or at work, and one wonders if some of that time might have been better used digging deeper into the people and ideas surrounding her.

As a translation of its protagonist’s subjective experience, though, the film is almost obsessively observant. Close-ups of Riley’s increasingly sparse eyebrows track her emotional state, as her mounting anxiety manifests in trichotillomania. The sound mix zeroes in on the panting of athletes, or gives itself over to the unbearable drone of Riley’s mother’s constant vacuuming. Backspot can be a pleasure to look at, particularly when it’s focused on the grandeur of bodies in motion. But it’s not exactly pretty. The film’s dominant colors are the utilitarian grays and blacks of a gym, nestled within a Canadian suburb dotted with dirty snow.

It’s a pointed choice, given that elite cheerleading — “the old school stuff, the stuff that gets you trophies,” as Eileen puts it — isn’t just delivering astounding feats of athleticism and discipline. As Backspot points out, it’s also about projecting a certain image of idealized conventional femininity: thin, trim, glazed in glittery makeup topped with a beaming smile. It seems no wonder that a girl like Riley, so intent on being seen as perfect, might be drawn to the sport, and even less wonder that it has the potential to break her.

But if the film follows her into the darkness, it also offers her a way out through its unvarnished but compassionate view of her life and the people who care about her. Riley struggles to live up to perfection, as defined by her coach or her family or her own lofty standards. Backspot firmly but lovingly reminds her that she only need learn to be herself.

Full credits

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Production companies: Page Boy Productions, Prospero Pictures, Night is Y
Cast: Devery Jacobs, Evan Rachel Wood, Kudakwashe Rutendo, Thomas Antony Olajide, Shannyn Sossamon
Director: D.W. Waterson
Screenwriter: Joanne Sarazen
Producers: Alona Metzer, D.W. Waterson, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, Martin Katz
Executive producers: Elliot Page, Matt Jordan Smith, J.C. Davidson, Katisha Shaw
Cinematographer: James Poremba
Production designer: Avalon McLean-Smits
Costume designer: Courtney Mitchell
Editor: D.W. Waterson
Music: Casey MQ
Casting directors: Jason Knight, John Buchan
Sales: UTA
1 hour 33 minutes

THR Newsletters

Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day

Subscribe Sign Up



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Featured NEWS