A Candy-Colored Cult Sweetens at 20

‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ comes of age.

Bursts of orange as tempting as pre-pandemic citrus palomas with friends. An excess of sporty pinks that make Legally Blonde seem like child’s play. Nursery room blues that confirm that ‘blue’ is not only the warmest color, but most fun.

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A cult classic since the moment it premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 1999, But I’m a Cheerleader’s greatest strength has always been its love of color and its indicative power; here, raucous pops of pigment are beacons in adolescence’s darkest hours, illuminating gender, difference, youth, and yearning better than any whimsy-filled Wes Anderson screenplay. Factor in the now-mononymous RuPaul Charles as a tempted ex-gay counselor and a teenaged Natasha Lyonne as the picture’s gay cheerleader heroine Megan — the Russian Doll creator’s trademark rasp and Muppet glare already developed — and this scrappy comedy possessed all the trappings of a 35 mm indie wonder.

Upon release, this first film by Jamie Babbit — the director behind a number of solid episodes of Nip/Tuck, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Silicon Valley — was praised for cleverly adorning the bleak world of “ex-gay” treatment facilities in biting dark comedy and sequin-festooned drag. Today, the 85-minute indie remains a timeless PSA against conversion therapy. But what makes But I’m a Cheerleader most remarkable is that this serious takeaway comes at no detriment to the film’s rib-splitting visual humor.

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A new 4K Director’s Cut, out today, December 8, in celebration of film’s 20th Anniversary, includes the requisite audio commentary, deleted scenes, and spotlights on Cheerleader’s set designers and composers. Initially, hearing that a film as pitch perfect as this one was being released in 4K made as much sense to me as Ben Wheatley’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca; why, oh why, tamper with perfection? But because But I’m a Cheerleader is already imbued with excellent color, clarity, tone, and texture, 4K’s chemical peel only serves to deepen the experience; one so quick-witted and endlessly queer that it evokes the words of Gilbert Baker, the late creator of the contemporary LGBT Pride flag: The rainbow is a part of nature, and you have to be in the right place to see it.

For Babbit, applying new technology to an older film created new concerns. “We had blemishes on actors I had never seen before on 35 mm,” she told me over email. “Thank god when we did 4K we also did a quick visual effects pass to help the actors look as good in the original film!” In higher resolution, a minute error in lighting and staging can become an issue years later.

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But in 4K, Cheerleader’s intricacies of set design also come into focus. Babbit’s tendencies to sharply contrast color to strike a somber tone and to match objects like hand mirrors, vases, and mannequins to their backgrounds are on full display. These are techniques that the filmmaker first deployed in Sleeping Beauties, her 1997 short film about a mortician make-up artist who falls in love with a funeral photographer. While on the subject of make-up, in 4K, But I’m a Cheerleader’s lipsticks — mattes, satins, glosses — become hypervisible, each girl and woman possessing a shade of pink that manages to precisely date the character and nod to personality. Played by Clea DuVall, Megan’s forbidden True Directions romantic interest Graham is straight out of the film’s milieu, her oily hair, chunky penny loafers, polyurethane bedding, and glitter-gloss simulating an Alloy catalogue spread from 1998.

But I’m a Cheerleader excels at drawing attention to the absurdity within “the norm” — and what better place for this experiment than a quaint suburban enclave that resembles June Cleaver’s Mayfield? The characters’ styles follow suit. Megan, despite having an indicting Melissa Etheridge poster on her bedroom wall, wears austere cardigans, and has borderline-bouffant hair. Consisting of bops by malt shop-inspired girl bands, the film’s soundtrack is the Aqua Net on top.

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It’s only when Megan’s fate takes a turn for the worse that But I’m a Cheerleader’s color palette takes a turn for the better. As she is shipped off to a conversion camp named True Directions, the warm egg yolk yellows and darkwood browns that define the dreary suburban interiors dissipate and give way to something much more vibrant. For Babbit, color was a love language spoken only tothe film’s queer characters. She does not run from the harmful “pink is for girls” and “blue is for boys” tropes that, deployed with impunity at gender reveal parties, contributed to California’s perpetual flames this summer.

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Instead, Babbit runs toward these problem colors, dousing True Directions, the residents’ wardrobes, and everything in-between in pink and blue. At times, it seems as though the Victorian mansion that houses the program is not pink and blue in architecture, but from the energies that its chaotically gendered residents, atomic and glowing, have authentically brought into the space. It’s a punk rock act on the director’s part to illustrate, through pigment, the countless ways gender roles — in our careers, to our clothes, to our tastes in art, to our legal arrangements, to our partners — have been pre-determined for us, regardless of persuasion. Reduced to these two simple colors and their variations, we have no other option but to submit or transgress. It’s an intense problem, but it’s also a fabulous one; one that Babbit makes light of by casting the peerless Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull, Casper) as the camp’s hard-boiled, queer-reforming leadership, and risk-taking newcomers like Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures), Michelle Williams (Certain Women), and model Ione Skye (in a newly-released deleted scene) as the film’s strong-willed teens.

In But I’m a Cheerleader, color also serves as a litmus test for passion. The one exception to the drab suburban rule is Megan’s school color, a tiger orange that dyes her cheerleading uniform and her boyfriend’s football jersey. When we first meet Megan, she’s in action in an orange creamsicle cheerleading uniform. Hips rock as sherbert pom-poms shimmy. As she and her squadmates practice stunts during the film’s opening, Babbit’s camera behaves as mischievously, grazing supple teen thighs and taut abdomens as the girls soar through the air; a body in motion is a body brimming with desire. This luscious slow-mo encounter with cheerleaders is the fantasy. Megan, a suburban girl yet to don the pinks and blues of sexual reckoning, has found an adolescent life preserver in orange, in the feminized separatism of cheerleading and school spirit.

“With its triumphant allure and silhouette, orange has conquered the runways,” Eugénie Trochu mused in a recent Vogue Paris article. So too does it conquer the high school’s patriotic hallways.

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Whenever I encounter orange now, I am reminded that Jamie Babbit gave gay girls license to look at other girls untowardly; thank heavens. The color also recalls Jeanette Winterson’s coming-of-age novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Lara Jean Gallagher’s thriller Clementine, where a woman and a girl share life secrets over a symbolic piece of fruit. Orange is a moment in Patricia Highsmith’s Carol where the older protagonist gives Therese a round citrus and milk. With Channel Orange, Frank Ocean made us lay down our burdens. Orange, often neglected, is a reliable companion, articulating interest where love can’t yet be found but where pink’s romantic expectation isn’t quite right, either.

Most importantly, orange is how, once everything turns repressively pink and blue, Megan turns this whole thing around on-screen.

Written by

Sarah Fonseca is a publicly-educated nonfiction writer from the Georgia foothills who lives in New York City.

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