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‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ is the perfect fairytale for Pride

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By Alison Foreman2021-06-11 09:30:00 UTC

From Hedwig and the Angry Inch to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, plenty of the movies I love are considered queer cult classics. But for LGBTQ Pride Month 2021 — an annual celebration that this year just so happens to double as the cathartic end to a global crisis — I’ll be obsessing about one movie and one movie only.

Turning 21 this year, But I’m A Cheerleader changed my life. Not just when I saw it as a teenager struggling to come out as queer, but pretty much every time I’ve watched it since. It’s a cinematic refresher, a perspective shakeup, a timelessly joyous watch that never fails to improve my outlook.

An uncynical romance arguing change is always possible.

Jamie Babbit’s campy rom-com follows Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a peppy yet pious high schooler accused of “homosexual tendencies” by her family and friends, despite insisting she is not a lesbian. (Among those friends, by the way, is Michelle Williams in a bit role you just gotta see.)

When Megan is shipped off to conversion therapy camp True Directions, however, her feelings of indignation — “But I’m a cheerleader!” is in fact the confused kid’s primary argument for why she must be straight — give way to a burning-hot crush on fellow camper Graham, played by Clea DuVall. The fairytale will-they-won’t-they that follows was once described by Babbit as “gay Clueless,” which should tell you just about everything you need to know. 

This is a story of hope, an uncynical romance arguing that change, be it at a personal or societal level, is always possible. Of course, that’s a message that feels more needed with each viewing, because… Well, have you seen it out there? But, bubbly and comforting, it’s also an easy watch for any time.

21 years later, 'But I'm a Cheerleader' is still the perfect fairytale

Cathy Moriarty stars as True Directions’ program director Mary, a gravelly-voiced, Stepford Wives type whose sickly candy-coated attitude colors the film’s set and costumes. She’s flanked by counselor Mike, played by venerable LGBTQ icon RuPaul, who sports a “Straight is Great” tee, and in one scene looks dead to camera and irony-free says, “I used to be an ex-gay.” 

Together, the pair spout endless nonsense about the moral righteousness of heterosexuality, while flawlessly embodying how ridiculous they sound. They’re scene-stealing send-ups from the beloved entertainers, made even better by the genuine performances to which they play opposite.

Graham and Megan are joined by a slew of campers, including characters played by Melanie Lynskey and Dante Basco, who offer a variety of perspectives on their homophobic predicament. It’s an instantly likable bunch of actors, whose evident love of the whip-smart material they are delivering radiates from the screen and brings each their characters’ backstories to life. 

A goth lesbian turns her aversion therapy shock tool into a kink. A Jewish boy traces the source of his gayness back to “a traumatic bris.” Megan endlessly tries to pep and cheer her way out of this mess.

21 years later, 'But I'm a Cheerleader' is still the perfect fairytale

Over a lightning-fast runtime of about 90 minutes, this very turn-of-the-millenium ensemble takes us through True Directions’ five-step program. But where a drama might double down on the horrific history of conversion therapy, But I’m A Cheerleader finds levity and fun. 

Scenes of horrible prejudice become clandestine opportunities for flirting, and Megan and Graham’s relationship blossoms. What the future holds for these lovebirds, you’ll find, is as compelling as any star-crossed romance to come before it.

Better left unspoiled, this iconic title is one I’m always recommending, but feels more essential now than ever before. It’s brief. It’s beautiful. It’s But I’m a Cheerleader. Welcome.

But I’m a Cheerleader is now streaming on IMDb TV, and accessible for lease or buy on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and the Microsoft Store.

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