Overwrought caricatures backfire in But I’m a Cheerleader. Praise is a rich dissection of vacuousness. 

But I’m a Cheerleader
Directed by Jamie Babbit
Lions Gate Films

Directed by John Curran
Cowboy Booking International

People who militate against a cause often end up serving as the best recruiting posters for it. That Big Tobacco witch-hunter Kenneth W. Starr made it so much easier to get behind the unscrupulous Bill Clinton. Those cocktail-swilling “Just Say No”-ers help dispel our ambivalence about drugs. (The current documentary Grass makes the case for marijuana by layering anti-dope clips into an uproarious head movie.) And if Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly hadn’t come along, homosexuals would have had to invent them.

Outrageously caricaturing one’s critics is the rhetorical strategy of Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, a satire of the homophobic right in which naive gay teens get shipped off to a boot camp boasting a five-step program for setting them “straight.” The notion of drilling befuddled homosexual kids in senseless heterosexual rituals should be a sure-fire hoot, but the movie has been written (by Brian Wayne Peterson) and directed as a kind of Moral Majority minstrel show, a high-camp gay revue sketch, and the point of view is so sniggeringly one-sided that the picture has no tension. But I’m a Cheerleader is lazy counterpropaganda—which is always a bore in a fiction film, even if you’re a cheerleader for the cause.

The title is the heroine’s answer to the charge of being a lesbian. It has apparently never occurred to the churchgoing Megan (Natasha Lyonne) that her boredom with her hunky football-star boyfriend, her tendency to hug her fellow cheerleaders a tad too long, the cheesecake posters in her locker, her Melissa Etheridge albums, and her vegetarianism all signal her “deviancy.” The last symptom suggests how easy some of the jokes in this movie are: It even uses tofu for a laugh. Actually, all the satire has a cobwebbed anti-’50s perspective. Step 2 of the deprogramming is “Rediscovery of Your Gender Identity,” which is here portrayed as learning how to vacuum in dainty plastic gloves. (The males are taught to fix cars.) Megan, who doesn’t want to be a lesbian, explains the rationale behind her retraining: “Women have roles. After you’ve learned that, you’ll stop objectifying them.”

The movie, meanwhile, couldn’t objectify its straight villains more: They’ve been cast with actors who can barely conceal their contempt for their characters. Megan’s super-Christian parents are cult-movie stalwarts Bud Cort (Harold and Maude, 1971) and Mink Stole (Pink Flamingos, 1972), neither of whom does much to make heterosexuality look like a viable lifestyle. Cathy Moriarty plays the head of the boot camp in drag-queen mode and with Joan Rivers’ disgusted inflections: “Foreplay is for sissies,” she snaps to her charges during simulated hetero-sex. “Real men go in, unload, and pull out.”

But I’m a Cheerleader has a peppy, girl-group soundtrack, but it’s visually an elbow in the ribs: overdesigned (the female living quarters are pink and red and Barbie-doll girly) and shot with fisheye lenses. Nowadays, a straight film that makes homosexuality look repulsive would come in for justifiable criticism, and there’s no reason a gay film that makes heterosexuality look unnatural—and tasteless—should be judged by a different standard. When a man is viewed through female eyes, he’s ludicrously unattractive; through male eyes, he’s languorously eroticized. The world is a giant closet. The chief deprogrammer, a supposed ex-homosexual, is played by RuPaul in short shorts, and even the wicked witch Moriarty’s muscular son—Rock (Eddie Cibrian)—is a gay pinup.

The only part of But I’m a Cheerleader that isn’t grotesque is the central love story, a conventional coming-out tale in which Megan is tenderly seduced by a rich girl (Clea DuVall) whose obnoxious dad has threatened to disinherit her if she doesn’t develop a liking for boys. DuVall, who was Winona Ryder’s delusional roommate in last year’s Girl, Interrupted, is a self-contained actress with slit eyes and a slightly sneering mouth. Her talent—a blessed one in a picture this over-the-top—is for underplaying with passion, and her scenes with Lyonne have a tentative, exploratory quality. They actually feel human.

As it happens, I couldn’t agree more with the point of view of But I’m a Cheerleader, but I couldn’t like the movie less. Today’s doctrinaire homophobes are too savvy to invoke 1950s’ archetypes of housewives pushing vacuum cleaners and squeamishly shunning foreplay. Anita Bryant has been supplanted by Dr. Laura, who is much more skillful at playing on impressionable people’s doubts about who they are while shoring up the bigotry of the opposition. By gleefully caricaturing the forces of repression in a package suitable for the local multiplex, this movie makes them seem positively unthreatening.

T he local multiplex won’t be carrying Praise, a slow, intimate, micro-budget Australian slacker drama that has been playing the film festival circuit to rapt audiences. Not enough happens in it. And yet everything happens in it: Two people come face to face with the limits of their love—and their humanity. Directed by John Curran from a sardonic, gorgeously compacted script by Andrew McGahan, this seemingly vacuous movie turns out to be a dissection of vacuousness—a stunningly rich one.

The druggie protagonist, Gordon (Peter Fenton), works in a rundown bar patronized by winos. Suddenly nauseated by his own degradation, he quits his job and returns to his boarding house full of old men. To say that Gordon is passive would not do his passivity justice: He’d probably merge with his mattress if he didn’t get a call from a girl he met at the bar, Cynthia (Sacha Horler), who invites him to her absent parents’ house.

Where Gordon is attractive and encased in his own cynicism, Cynthia is fleshy and nervy and raw—so raw that her skin is flaking off from eczema. She draws him into her orbit the way a sun draws in an asteroid, and once he’s there she wants to have sex with him all the time for as long as he can possibly go. She’s ravenous, with a huge clitoris (“It’s all those steroids I took for my skin”); Gordon can’t possibly fill her up or satisfy her. She’s too much of everything—jealous, unstable, expectant—but he’s all she can get, and so she stays with him. She’s the most solid thing Gordon has ever had, and he can’t wait to be rid of her.

Horler reportedly gained weight to play Cynthia, and her heaviness will probably hurt the movie’s chances to catch on with even art-house audiences. The dissipation here isn’t glamorous enough. But it’s hard to imagine an actress more painfully right for this relationship—someone whose need practically oozes out of her pores. The movie is like Sid & Nancy (1986) if you took away the violence and satire and melodrama and rock ’n’ roll—in other words, all the externals—and left only the grasping. It’s vaporous, and it’s indelible.