Thursday, June 13, 2024

“BACKSPOT”

THE STORY – Riley gets the chance to cheer with the all-star squad, Thunderhawks. With a competition looming, Riley must navigate her crippling anxiety, her relationship with her girlfriend, and her desperate need for approval from her new coach.

THE CAST – Devery Jacobs, Evan Rachel Wood, Noa DiBerto, Kudakwashe Rutendo, Oluniké Adeliyi, Shannyn Sossamon, Thomas Antony Olajide & Wendy Crewson

THE TEAM – D. W. Waterson (Director) & Joanne Sarazen (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes


Whoever stated that cheerleading isn’t a sport is wrong. Director D. W. Waterson proves that quickly with an impressive opening sequence in her new film “Backspot”: Young athletes tumble at a fast pace with constant counting from fellow teammates. It is a sport – a demanding and brutal sport where only seconds stand between an impressive stunt of athleticism and catastrophe. Not only are these young girls required to tumble and perform over-splits, but they also throw their teammates, the Flyer, feet above their heads. The Backspot, the teammate that holds the Flyer’s feet before they’re thrown, is responsible for assisting and ensuring the flyer’s safety and counting the stunt for the rest of the team. It is, debatably, one of the most stressful jobs a cheerleader can have.

“Backspot” follows a young mid-level backspot, Riley (Devery Jacobs), who is determined to be the best, no matter what. She is usually the first person at the gym and the last to leave with her teammate and girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo). Riley has a deeper passion for cheerleading than the rest of her teammates, who either have more natural ability for the sport or are simply doing it for fun. When Riley isn’t at the gym or with Amanda, she is constantly stunting and analyzing cheerleading videos on YouTube. Like most young girls, she’s a perfectionist. But that passion tends to lean into anxiety and a manifestation of Trichotillomania, a tendency to pick one’s hair in a state of anxiety or stress. 

When a competing team has openings due to an influx of injuries, Riley and Amanda try out and make it. It’s a dream come true: to be chosen as one of the best and have the opportunity to compete at a more advanced level. But that giddy excitement slowly fades as Riley, Amanda, and Rachel (Noa DiBerto) are forced to step up to their new stern coach, Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood) and her assistant Devon (Thomas Antony Oajide), and prove that they are talented enough to compete at a higher level and secure a competition win.

“Backspot” is a love letter to competitive cheerleading and the coming-of-age genre, featuring impressive stunt work from its young cast. Female adolescents tend to overwork themselves to be the best, and Waterson quickly brings their audience into the gruesome and intense world of cheerleading. In addition to the constant drills, practice, and rehearsals, the athletes are constantly icing their legs, wrapping injuries, and holding back tears. Cheerleading is challenging, especially for the backspot, but Eileen wants her team to be the best, and Riley wants to prove that she earned her spot.

Devery Jacobs is excellent as Riley, who has to work harder than most to perform at the competition level. But once she sees that Eileen is not only a commanding coach but a potential queer cheerleading role model, she places cheerleading above everyone and everything, including her prior relationships. Jacobs is able to convey the innate passion Riley has for the sport, but also the gradual hyper-fixation she has with Eileen and the crescendo of her anxiety. Everything is overpowering Riley’s ability to form her identity as Waterson showcases Riley’s building anxiety with extreme close-ups of her eyebrows that slowly become shorter from Trichotillomania or the sound mixing that reflects Riley’s first panic attack.

The supporting cast also has rewarding moments that support Riley’s journey. Rutendo, as Amanda, showcases a healthy relationship with the sport and holds a mirror up to Riley when she takes things too far for an extracurricular activity. Evan Rachel Wood and Thomas Antony Oajide both have great scenes as the coaches, who are stern but also supportive. It would be easy to write them, particularly Eileen, as hard and evil teachers who put winning over everything, but Eileen is a coach who cares about her athletes. Wood plays her with a stoic confidence that makes her a respectable, untouchable, and attractive character to which Riley clings. Both characters are aware that they are working with minors and are responsible for taking care of their team not only as athletes but as growing women. The fact that both Riley and Eileen are queer allows their relationship to be a bit deeper than the other girls.

Waterson touches on some timely issues, such as the debate of whether cheerleading is a sport, the point of cheerleading in a modern world, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and body types in women and women in sports; however, tackling all these themes with a short runtime means they are only touched upon once and aren’t mentioned again. Despite this, “Backspot” proves to be another fantastic addition to the coming-of-age genre. It has a relatively simple coming-of-age plot – Riley has to learn that she is good enough and doesn’t need to push herself too hard to the point of burnout – but what makes “Backspot” lovely are the lessons the main character learns from her coaches and the impact emotionally mature adults can have on children. Yes, being a teenage girl is tough, but Waterson shows us that everything will be okay with the right support system and we will eventually stick the landing.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Great stunt choreography and characters, particularly Evan Rachel Wood and Thomas Antony Oajide as the coaches, who provide the central character a safe place to transform.

THE BAD - It's an at times formulaic coming-of-age story. Due to a short runtime, some themes aren't explored as much as needed to be an effective plot point.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Lauren LaMagna
Lauren LaMagnahttps://nextbestpicture.com
Assistant arts editor at Daily Collegian. Film & TV copy editor.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Great stunt choreography and characters, particularly Evan Rachel Wood and Thomas Antony Oajide as the coaches, who provide the central character a safe place to transform. <br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>It's an at times formulaic coming-of-age story. Due to a short runtime, some themes aren't explored as much as needed to be an effective plot point. <br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"BACKSPOT"