If you’re looking for recent movies about the uniquely harrowing experience of female perfectionism, there’s the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, Lauren Hadaway’s gut-punching feature debut The Novice, and now Backspot, the debut feature from Canadian DJ and director D. W. Waterson. Backspot has all the trappings of an impactful story, putting capable actors like Devery Jacobs and Evan Rachel Wood in the pressure cooker of competitive cheerleading. Unfortunately, this movie is far more concerned with bassy beats and showy camerawork than it is with making a point.
Our protagonist is Riley (Jacobs), a neurotic backspot who gets recruited into an elite squad, the Thunderhawks, just before a big competition. Together with her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) and friend Rachel (Noa DiBerto), Riley tries to withstand the brutal new standards set forth by their exacting coach, Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood). Riley, who shares her home with an aggressive, absentee father and a controlling, overbearing mother (Shannyn Sossamon), is at home with the Thunderhawks’ particular brand of toxicity. She begins to idolize Eileen, especially when she learns that she is also gay; Amanda and Rachel aren’t quite so starstruck.
Though constructed entirely around the concept of tension, Backspot suffers from a severe lack of stakes. Riley endures some interpersonal conflict and inner turmoil, but none of it lasts long or has a strong grip. Despite an aggressive, untreated case of anxiety that causes her to suffer from excoriating self-blame and trichotillomania, she somehow has the power to fix all her own problems––even some of her mother’s. Any recovering control freak will tell you that this is, at best, delusional. A person like Riley cannot evolve by relying solely on herself (and, for one brief evening, her assistant coach). That’s how she got into this mess in the first place.
With no character growth to propel it, Backspot slogs through its 93-minute runtime, occasionally jarred by an EDM soundtrack and gaudy cinematography. Waterson’s musical background should have been a boon to the film, given the chaotic electronica coloring all cheer routines. Instead it creates a distraction: Waterson lends nine songs to Backspot’s soundtrack––at least five too many bass-drops for any indie drama, regardless of setting.
James Poremba’s cinematography is likewise overdone at the oddest moments. Much of the film takes place in poorly lit, ugly gymnasiums, yet a mop bucket gets a vibrant, slow-motion closeup. The climactic cheer performance is strong, making for a believable labor of love. (Special notice to DiBerto, a real-life cheerleader, as Rachel.) The rest of the film is aimless and music-video-like, offering scant revelations about Riley and her meaningful relationships. Though she’s excellent as usual, Wood is particularly underutilized as Eileen. Riley’s parallels to her coach culminate in an act of bizarre, feeble defiance.
There are some interesting pieces at work here, but not enough to make a compelling whole. Tertiary characters flit in and out of the story with little purpose; Riley just needs the right eyebrow makeup to conquer her acute self-loathing. If you thought this promising premise was going somewhere––particularly somewhere emotionally resonant––think again. Backspot is little more than a series of stunts punctuated by moments of flash. If its fictional spotters were as flimsy as its execution, there’d be a lot more broken necks.
Backspot premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.