Synopsis: Riley is given 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.
Director: D.W. Waterson
Stars: Devery Jacobs, Kudakwashe Rutendo, Evan Rachel Wood, Wendy Crewson, Thomas Antony Olajide
The multiple seasons spent at cheerleading events for the Ottawa REDBLACKS Cheers and Dance team and attending CFL games have instilled in me an admiration for cheerleading. I’ve seen first-hand how hard they work.
It’s clear from Backspot that director D.W. Waterson holds that regard. The film, originally a short made into a feature, looks at cheerleading from a different point of view. It doesn’t lean into the stereotype that cheerleaders are all beauty and no brains; it showcases them as the athletes they are.
Riley (Devery Jacobs) and her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) are cheerleaders but, first and foremost, teenagers — scream-singing songs at the top of their lungs as they drive around. They are both outstanding athletes and supportive of each other. They balance life between practice, their part-time jobs and each other.
An opportunity arises for them to try out for an all-star cheer team coached by Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood), and they make it. They are both impressed with Eileen, a hard-to-please coach. Congrats to Waterson and writer Joanne Saracen for not falling into the trap of writing Eileen’s character like J.K. Simmons from Whiplash but giving her a separate identity. There are no ‘Are you rushing or dragging?’ moments, but her desire for excellence remains.
The film doesn’t run from the debate of ‘Are these athletes or just beauty queens?’ In one scene, Waterson effectively conveys both points of view. Still, I suspect the debate will continue even though cheerleading is a recognized sport that will be included in the 2028 Olympics.
The movie also showcases the level of talent in Canada. Jacobs, who often collaborates with Waterson, is very authentic in this film. We see how her second-place-isn’t-an-option attitude affects her mental health and relationships. Jacobs’ performance as Riley is very strong.
This movie is primarily about cheerleading, but the ‘Riley’ character is recognizable to all of us who have met someone with goals, insecurities, and drive.
Co-star Rutendo is also strong in the film, and it is only fitting that she is the recipient of this year’s TIFF Rising Star Award. In fact, the cast includes three Rising Star recipients — Jacobs and Olajide previously won the award.
Waterson and the cast must be commended for portraying this sport realistically while delivering impressive acting.