‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ – Natasha Lyonne explores her identity on Paramount+

Natasha Lyonne has a whole new profile today as the creator of Russian Doll and the star of Rian Johnson’s throwback mystery series Poker Face but for years she was the most sardonic young actress in the American indie scene.

She puts on a cheery face and wears her pom-poms with pride in But I’m a Cheerleader (2000) as picture-perfect high school girl Megan. But she’s got a problem: her boyfriend’s sloppy, slobbering kisses don’t get her all hot and bothered (“Maybe he just doesn’t do it right,” she ponders), she loves tofu, and she proudly hangs a Melissa Etheridge poster in her bedroom. In this cookie-cutter suburb of Anytown USA, those are the telltale signs of… lesbianism!

Without warning she’s ambushed with an intervention and sent to a deprogramming clinic run by shrewish matriarch Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty in Wicked Witch of the Midwest mode). In a life-sized dollhouse that looks like a Fisher Price version of a Father Knows Best set, girls dressed in powder puff pink outfits vacuum, embroider, and scrub linoleum floors, while outdoors chirpy “ex-gay” Mike (RuPaul out of drag and in a T-shirt that reads “Straight is great”) tosses footballs and teaches auto mechanics to a group of highly uninterested baby blue boys.

The girls may be earnestly trying to wash those same-sex impulses out of their system with domestic role-playing games by day, but at night they rebel. When not using the electroshock aversion therapy as foreplay, they sneak out on the “underground homosexual railroad” to boogie their conformist impulses away at a gay bar. Good girl Megan finally admits her true feelings to dour rebel Graham (Clea DuVall) and they share the kind of smooch that sends Mary Brown into eye-rolling convulsions.

There’s an inoffensive energy to Jamie Babbit’s lampoon of homophobia hysteria. Driven by a peppy girl group rock score, the film plays gay stereotypes as broad farce and middle-class fear as frantic panic, but there’s no bite beyond the cartoonish laughs. Which is a shame, as Babbit has gusto to burn. His gingerbread art direction and gee-whiz parody of 1950s TV stereotypes played out by modern teens doesn’t carry the insight or the edge of satire, and he wastes the wise Lyonne as a perky innocent when her strengths are in her wisecracks and knowing looks. But it’s disarmingly funny in its own naïve way and it was definitely ahead of its time. And it has become something of a cult film since its debut over two decades ago.

Future Oscar nominee Michelle Williams and Melanie Lynskey costar along with cult figures Bud Cort, Richard Moll, and Mink Stole.

Rated R

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
But I’m a Cheerleader [Blu-ray]
But I’m a Cheerleader [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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