Backspot – Toronto 2023

Riley (Devery Jacobs) in Backspot. Courtesy of TIFF.

A cheerleader gets an opportunity to cheer for an All-Star cheer squad in Backspot but it doesn’t come without anxiety and such.

Riley (Devery Jacobs) is a mid-level cheerleader for the Cheer Fuzion All-Stars, where she’s the backspot. When learning that she has an opportunity to cheer for the Thunderhawks, Riley screws up her first chance. Even though she probably shouldn’t get a second chance, she decides to do it again and nails the landing. Next thing you know, she makes the All-Star cheer squad. It certainly doesn’t hurt her case that many of the team are dropping like flies to injuries. Moving up a level is also not without anxiety, relationship issues, and of course, wanting Coach Eileen McNamara’s (Evan Rachel Wood) approval. It’s the anxiety that more or less impacts all of her decision-making, which leads to some questionable decisions later on. All of this is on top of her relationship with girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo), who is also a cheerleader.

As far as sports movies go, Backspot features the traditional montage showing how hard cheerleaders work. It’s not your traditional cheerleading movie. It’s a coming-of-age film with a queer lead, much like The Novice. But anyway, we see how joining the Thunderhawks have an impact on Riley, Amanda, and their friend Rachel (Noa Diberto). As the film gets closer to its climax, we begin to see how the new squad is impacting their relationship, for better or worse. One way or another, Riley has to find a way to move past her anxiety.

Cheerleading is an elite sport even if it doesn’t look that way when one is attending high school. I’m from Kentucky, where the Kentucky Wildcats cheerleading team has won 24 national championships. Big Blue Nation cares about its basketball and football but the cheer squad is one of the best in the nation, if not the absolute best. Case in point: the school’s 24 championships represent the most cheerleading championships in college sports.

The indie film–penned by Tammy’s Always Dying screenwriter Joanne Sarazen from a story by director D.W. Waterson–was shot on location in Canada. I should let you know right now that there are scenes with a Cineplex. Do with that what you will. There’s no US distribution at the moment although levelFILM is handling in Canada. On one level, it’s definitely a Canadian film. But on the other hand, a sports movie like this should resonate with American audiences or at least those who are LGBTQ and interested in cheerleading.

Backspot pulls back the curtain to show the extent to which the athletes train but cheerleading is no joke.

DIRECTOR: D.W. Waterson
SCREENWRITER: Joanne Sarazen
CAST: Devery Jacobs, Shannyn Sossamon, Kudakwashe Rutendo, Thomas Antony Olajide, Noa Diberto, Olunike Adeliyi, with Wendy Crewson, Shannyn Sossamon, and Evan Rachel Wood

Backspot holds its world premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery program. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.