My appreciation for Backspot moves like a teeter-totter.  While it’s worth congratulating the filmmakers for not giving in to sports clichés, the movie may have benefited from more melodrama.

Making her feature debut, director D.W. Waterson (of the acclaimed digital series That’s My DJ) explores the world of competitive cheerleading through the anxious eyes of Riley (Devery Jacobs of FX’s series Reservation Dogs).  Riley aspires to be a key backspot position on an all-star cheer squad, coached by the notoriously regimented Eileen McNamara (Evan Rachel Wood, coming full circle from her breakout coming-of-age hit Thirteen).  Riley and her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) are ecstatic when they find out they have the opportunity to join McNamara’s team, but they quickly realize how demanding and unrelenting this change of pace can be.

Much like Riley’s responsibilities to keep time during stunts, Backspot has a metronomic rhythm that contributes to the suspense of the squad’s choreographed formations as well as Riley’s personal challenges to steady her composure.  Though highly stylized, Waterson is still respectful towards her troubled lead when representing the harmful obsessions Riley develops out of fear and stress (such as trichotillomania, as seen in Alice, Darling).  These troubling scenes, countered by impressive athletic feats that the squad are all very proud of, could be very relatable and cathartic for audiences who are around the same demographic as Backspot’s primary characters.

Despite its dealings with anxiety, Backspot is a fairly tame teen drama with surprisingly low stakes.  In which case, and I say this with best intentions, the audience needs to lower their expectations with this movie.  Using the aforementioned Thirteen as an example of how far an edgy teen drama can go, Backspot falls somewhere around the intensity of a Degrassi episode with hints of Showgirls camp (though the latter may be unintentional).  The production finds longevity in earnest attitudes towards mental health, young love, and passions for pastimes.  In doing so, the viewer finds genuine favour for the film, which could also explain why it was such a crowd-pleaser on the festival circuit.  When the light atmosphere naturally transitions towards more angsty feelings, movie goers naturally ride with the tonal shift.  The change is slight, but the audience is still affected by it. 

Even if the viewer realizes all of this before the movie ends and they’e still feeling shorthanded by Backspot, they can at least recognize that Backspot is a very solid and competent debut from a new filmmaker.


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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie

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