But I'm a Cheerleader is a cinematic bildungsroman (a bildungsfilm?) about a perky, peppy cheerleader (played by she'd-be-a-star-if-acting-talent-counted-more-than-looks ingenue Natasha Lyonne). While Megan (Lyonne) loves cheerleading, her parents and friends fear that she loves it for all the wrong reasons. Their fears are compounded by her vegetarianism and the Melissa Etheridge poster hanging in her otherwise girlishly pink bedroom. Yes, tofu + girl rock = Megan must be a lesbian.
To combat the anti-Christian feelings they believe are blossoming inside her, Megan's parents (Bud Cort, of Harold and Maude fame, and Mink Stole, from John Waters' stable of actors) send her away to True Directions, a camp for teens who are sliding down the slippery, well-lubricated and potentially delicious slope into homosexuality. (The name True Directions is a reference to New Directions, a nationwide program that aims to replace hot, sweaty fun with stilted, prayerful obeisance in the lives of our homosexual citizens.)
Megan, of course, denies that she's a lesbian, and so is submitted to harassment and humiliation from the counselors and teens at True Directions. Assuming that she can't be gay because she's a cheerleader, she utters the titular line while surrounded by a glaring crowd that challenges her to take the first step, and admit that she's hot for some womanly loving.
It's at this point that the film moves from successful comedy to successful social commentary, as Megan realizes that the feelings that she has for other women are not "normal," and that she is, in fact, like those women who wear comfortable shoes.
Following the confessions of the other teens--"I'm Mary, and I'm a lesbian!" "I'm Dolph, and I'm gay!" "I'm Joel, and I'm Jewish and gay!" (as though both Judaism and homosexuality were equally suspect)--Megan finally admits that she, too, prefers the cheerleading squad for more tender reasons than most.
Thus, she begins her six-step program toward heterosexuality. Of course, most of the teens at True Directions understand that all they're really learning to do is seem straight. To this end, they receive points for working within established gender roles. The girls spend an hour a day on their knees with the scrub brush, while the boys learn to score in football and split logs with an axe, if you know what I mean.
One night, the kids decide to sneak out of camp for some fun. Luckily, two ex-ex-gays, Lloyd (Wesley Mann) and Larry (Richard Moll, who played Bull on Night Court, and who gives a delightful comic performance here), are there to take them to a gay bar in their van, affectionately referred to as "The Underground Gay Railroad."
At the bar, Megan realizes her love for fellow True Directions camper Graham (Clea Duvall, a veteran of '90s teen comedies who really shines in a dramatic performance in this film). Here the heartwarming girl-on-girl action begins. (Admittedly, a number of sapphic acquaintances of mine say that it is also hot girl-on-girl action.)
What follows is one of the sweetest coming-of-age stories in recent memory, made all the more impressive because it is played out against some very broad comedic backgrounds.
The interiors at the True Directions camp, for example, are all bright, monochromatic and candy colored. There's the pinker-than-pink girls' dorm, the baby-blue boys' dorm, and the oddly purple main hallways, wherein all lamps, tables, chairs and couches are the exact same hellish tone.
The camp's main counselor, Mike, is a soi-disant ex-gay who couldn't be fruitier. He's played by RuPaul, in male mode. He's being continually tempted by the camp caretaker, the Tom of Finland-esque Rock (Eddie Cibrian), who dances around in short-shorts while singing "It's Raining Men."
When not stifling himself from drooling over Rock, Mike is urging the campgoers to find their "root," the mythical cause of their gayness. "I went to girl's boarding school!" says one; "I saw the other boys naked in gym class!" says another; "I was born in France!" offers a third.
The bullying of the counselors, and the nasty effort to get the teens to deny who they are, causes strife among the campers, who are torn between sticking together and sticking it to each other, in every possible sense.
As they're encouraged to betray each other, the romances that are developing between them become sources of conflict. Anyone caught having the kind of fun that doesn't involve gross self-denial is in danger of being kicked out of the camp and disowned by their families. This sets up a dramatic series of scenes between Megan and Graham, pointing out the harm done by their efforts to hide who they are.
While But I'm a Cheerleader is a well-directed comedy and a well-aimed satire, it has also come under some fire from anti-gay and ex-gay groups, who say that it is unfair to their cause. I'd have to say that if their cause is teaching people that what they feel is disgusting, and that engaging in consensual behavior is immoral, then it's pretty fair. But really, it's hard for me to have any sympathy for groups like the ex-gay ministries that attempt to deplete our precious national resource of gay teens. If But I'm A Cheerleader convinces even one person that it's OK to have special moments with persons of the same sex, then it's done a service that far outweighs whatever entertainment value it has.
And it has plenty.