Review: ‘Backspot’

Evan Rachel Wood and Devery Jacobs Stick The Landing Of This Elliot Page-Produced Cheerleading Movie

You may remember this quote from Bring It On: “She puts the itch in bitch.” Backspot doesn’t take much from cinema’s most quintessential cheerleading movie. Still, its central character brings a heightened and almost terrifying sense of tension to D.W. Waterson’s first feature, exemplifying that quote. 

Riley (played by Reservation Dogs and Echo standout Devery Jacobs) is an ambitious cheerleader whose entire life is the sport. She takes her position as backspot seriously, the person in the stunt who counts and holds the person in the air. If the flyer falls, it is most likely the backspot’s fault. 

She takes that same responsibility for the rest of her life too. Her mother Tracy (early 2000s it girl Shannyn Sossamon) is a perfectionist whose OCD habits are clearly rubbing off on her daughter, while her unseen father never engages with their family.  She’s very protective of her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) who is also on their club team. Unlike Riley, she must work to participate in the team and contribute to her household led by her loving and warm mother (Olunike Adeliyi). 

When spots open up on the Thunderhawks, an all-star team, Riley’s anxiety and compulsive behavior escalate. Waterson displays this by showing extreme closeups of her face, often when she is plucking out her eyebrow hair, one by one. Even when she, Amanda, and their friend Rachel (Noa DiBerto) are all accepted, her behaviors worsen.  

Evan Rachel Wood plays the fearsome and intimidating Thunderhawk coach, Eileen, who rides Riley just as hard as she rides herself. The push and pull of Wood and Jacobs’ relationship propels the tension forward before fizzling out late in the second half. You are constantly hoping for the other shoe to drop, that Riley will push back somehow – that there’ll be this intense showdown – but it never happens. 

Instead, the film ends gently like a coming-of-age movie rather than the intense sports thriller of the first two-thirds. Devery Jacobs’ performance makes it a character study, all but inviting the audience to jump inside her head. She clearly understands the drive and purpose of her character, wearing her intensities on her sleeve while trying to mask them at the same time. 

Despite not being able to grasp the film’s tone, writer/director D.W. Waterson made a solid first feature. They included a few wonderful monologues about fatphobia within the sport, the financial burden on its participants, and the idolization of our mentors. Their writing is subtle, at times overly so. It’s no wonder that South by Southwest showed it at last year’s festival and Elliot Page’s Pageboy Productions is producing Backspot. Like the ambitions of the main character, if Waterson can harness her skills and refine them, they have a bright future cinematic future ahead of them.

Backspot is in theaters and on-demand

A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.
review-backspotThis intense yet uneven cheerleading drama is driven by Devery Jacob's dedicated performance and D.W. Waterson's eager direction.