‘Backspot’ Review: Thrilling Cheerleading Drama Is a Great Showcase for ‘Reservation Dogs’ Star Devery Jacobs

The 21st century cheerleader is an athlete unlike any other. With a wide-eyed grin, flashy makeup and a glittering bow to match, she is required to be sturdy yet feminine; pliant yet steely. In “Backspot,” D.W. Waterson’s feature directorial debut, the Canadian filmmaker has crafted a thrilling character portrait that puts those seemingly incongruent demands to the test. And, in the process, they have created a bold showcase for Devery Jacobs (“Reservation Dogs”), an actress who deftly captures the vexing tightrope walk required of young women in such a demanding, performance-driven, sport.

What’s immediately noticeable when you first meet Riley (Jacobs) are her eyebrows. Waterson doesn’t have us fixate on them but as you witness Riley going about her cheerleading practice with, among others, her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo), you can’t help but wonder why they’re so thinned out. She’s a capable athlete whose mind is definitely on nailing her flips and her landings; her eyebrows are the only clue that maybe something’s amiss. Riley is driven, yes. Perhaps obsessively so.
By the time you see Riley outside of that tightly-wound space where she’s required to be the best possible version of herself (all while smiling and pretending to not break a sweat) and you catch her absentmindedly picking at her eyebrows, you realize the stress of high school cheerleading — on top of other stressors in her life — may be too much for her to bear.

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This becomes particularly acute once she and Amanda are recruited into their dream cheer squad, the Thunderhawks. Under the strict tutelage of Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood, a welcome screen presence as always), the Thunderhawks’ stern coach, these two girls will soon be nudged toward further extremes if they are to succeed at this most demanding, if oft-derided, of sports. Riley has no time for those who’d look down on her choice of extracurricular. She knows how much of an athlete she is. How much painful work is required to be a good — nay, a great — cheerleader. Such zeal is eventually what will risk her losing everything she’s built for herself.

“Backspot” is titled after Riley’s own position in the squad. It’s a role that requires her to be vigilant and attentive to the stunts being performed by her peers. It’s the backspot who makes sure the flyers are kept safe as they’re thrown up into the air for the many acrobatic feats cheerleaders are called to perform during their routines. There’s a degree of responsibility required of Riley, one she attacks with aplomb, even at the risk of leaving her unable to stay vigilant about her own possible falls and faults.

With an absent-minded father and a mother (played with bruising, frazzled beauty by Shannyn Sossamon), who struggles with what looks like undiagnosed OCD tendencies, Riley’s zeroed-in focus on cheerleading as an escape leaves little room for mistakes. And that’s what fuels this young woman’s panic attacks, a liability in a world that understands and makes no room for anything short of perfection.
Joanne Sarazen’s “Blackspot” script (from a story by Waterson) initially sets itself up as a seemingly familiar sports character drama.

It’s one where the cost of winning demands by coaches and peers alike — though here particularly internalized by a young cheerleader who can’t imagine any other way of moving through the world than in the search for such perfection — will no doubt lead our protagonist to a breaking point. Yet there’s enough in Waterson’s feature (including Riley’s romantic relationship with Amanda, who has a more clear-headed approach to sportsmanship; and Riley’s chilled situation at home, not to mention her combative yet seductive dynamic with Eileen) to make this cheerleading drama feel fresh — and funny. (You’ll best understand the film’s sense of humor by its use of music, particularly some “Legally Blonde: The Musical” riffs and one perfect use of a well-known Dexys Midnight Runners song toward the end of the film).

That’s also particularly the case in the way D.P. James Poremba (“The Carmilla Movie”) playfully and dynamically shoots the Thunderhawks’ practice routines. Indeed, the cheerleading scenes that bookend the film — the first using POV shots that put you squarely in Riley’s headspace; the last featuring a thrilling roving one-take that showcases the squad’s entire finished performance — do a great job of honoring the brutal if graceful athleticism required in the sport.

But it is Jacobs’ performance that makes “Backspot” such an exciting watch, even as it hits well-known beats and otherwise expected character arcs. In many a close-up, Jacobs captures how driven and adrift this young woman can be at any given time, whether silently bickering with her girlfriend, boldly confronting her coach, downing drinks to drown her sorrows, and even playing patient parent to her frail, wayward mother. The steely resilience Jacobs imbues Riley with as the young cheerleader slowly learns how to make room for empathy and compassion (for herself but also for those around her) is what most delights in this kinetic, queer riff on the sports drama.

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