The 2000 film Bring It On made us fascinated with cheerleading, but D.W. Waterson's movie Backspot will make you fiercely captivated by the sport in a coming-of-age story starring Devery Jacobs and Evan Rachel Wood, executive produced by Elliot Page's Page Boy Productions.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Backspot follows teen cheerleader Riley (Jacobs). She’s a backspot on her team, the critical position that ensures the flyer is safe and in balance during a stunt.
Riley gets an opportunity from pro coach Eileen McNamara (Wood) to take a spot on an All Star team.
In the intensity of her cheerleading life, Riley is also experiencing all the joys of young love with her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo), who's on the advanced cheer squad as well.
But having to perform at a high level of athleticism comes with self-doubt and anxiety that Riley has to try to control.
"I feel like from a pop culture standpoint, there's something about cheerleading, it's the athleticism and the sparkles and the hype. It's exciting for everybody," Waterson told Yahoo Canada.
"But for me, I think what really interested me in cheerleading was ... its connection to queerness. There's a grittiness that people don't see."
Waterson explained they collaborated with Cheer Fusion for the past five years, a cheer club in Brampton, Ont., working on the proof of concept for the movie with the club.
"There was just so much happening behind the scenes that I've never seen portrayed in film," Waterson highlighted. "We usually get the glossiness and maybe the comedy aspect, but I was like, 'Where's the grittiness?'"
"They're getting concussions, ... there's blisters, there's bruising, there's concussion helmets. ... So I really wanted to kind of dive into that."
'I don't know if a movie would have been made like this if we hadn't made it'
With Jacobs not only starring in the film but also credited as a producer, the Reservation Dogs star feels she wouldn't have been offered a role like Riley in Backspot if this specific group of people didn't develop this movie.
"I don't know that I ever would have been cast in a role like this, had we not created it," Jacobs said.
"I don't know if a movie would have been made like this if we hadn't made it," Waterson added.
One of the highlights of Backspot is how the film brings you into the intense energy of cheerleading, while it also allows its teen characters to really be teens. They're being pushed to the extreme in cheer but particularly between Riley and Amanda, there's a level of comfort that sets up a situation where they're fun and silly with each other, like belting out "Omigod You Guys" from Legally Blonde: The Musical in the car together.
"We wanted this to be a positive queer relationship and it doesn't mean that it's without conflict, it doesn't mean that there are issues that they have in the relationship, but they're able to move through them and end up together on the other side," Jacobs stressed. "There are so many instances of queer relationships in film and TV where they're ripped apart. There are so few projects that highlight queer and queer femme relationships that are healthy and loving and safe."
"Riley and Amanda really find solace with each other. From Riley's anxiety and all the pressure she's feeling, and the adult that Amanda has to be in her life, working a job and contributing to her family. So for them to ... have that moment of really getting to be a kid in this loving relationship was something that was really important to us."
While Jacobs has such a nuanced way to depict Riley's anxiety throughout the film, sometimes with just a look or a touch, a lot of the intensity comes from Wood in the film. Jacobs revealed that since the beginning stages of crafting this movie, Wood has been the top choice for the role of Eileen.
"There was a lot of anticipation leading up to working with her and I think I had a bit of nerves because she's such a prominent and poignant actor," Jacobs said. "I definitely infused some of my nerves into the awe and admiration that Riley felt for Eileen."
"It was funny how when we would go from a take, as soon as we would yell action she would drop into Eileen's skin, and she'd be chewing her gum and would be really intimidating. As soon as we would yell cut, she would be immediately disarming and charming, and chatting with all of us. But for that take she was intimidating as hell. ... When she wrapped, the cheerleaders ended up putting her up in in a pyramid, she was the top of the pyramid. So she was game."
'We're not dividing people into categories based on the body'
As Backspot is reaching audiences in Toronto, it's also coming at a time when there have significant conversations about queer bodies in sports. This film will inevitably be a way to explore those discussions, but at the forefront is Waterson's ability to show us how we should be moving forward.
"There are so many conversations about queer bodies in sport and if they belong, or what category they belong into. It's ridiculous, to be honest," Waterson said. "I think there would be such a temptation maybe from another director or another writer to focus in on the trauma of that, but for me, sometimes you don't need to actually reflect reality, you need to show how reality should be as a way to move forward."
"I think that I definitely kind of took that throughout the film. Balancing let's reflect reality of the cheerleaders in the gym and the intensity on the body, but let's show culture and society how it should be. That at the end of the day, they're athletes. We're not dividing people into categories based on the body."