Friday, May 31, 2024

Backspot (2023)


An athlete's mindset can be their greatest advantage or distraction. When scrutiny of the outer world - family, coaches, society - bears down on players for their performance, let alone their gender or identity, the moment to break under pressure is always simmering under the surface. Much of this is the heart of director D.W. Waterson's feature directorial debut Backspot.

An ambitious cheerleader, Riley (Devery Jacobs), faces new adversity, an increased drive for perfection, and a demanding head coach (Evan Rachel Wood) when she and her girlfriend are selected for an all-star cheer squad. With a competition looming, Riley must navigate her drive alongside her crippling anxiety, as one wrong move could bring her crashing to the ground.

The world of sports is not easy for women, no matter the field. Cheerleading is itself is not considered as gruesome with their squad smiling through choreography and poses. Backspot doesn't merely aim to dispel the lack of dedication these athletes face but portray a well-rounded portrait of female and/or queer identity.

As the backspot, Riley leads the counts and supports her team with their dismounts; her teammates are counting on her vigilance and accuracy to avoid injury and to stay on time with their routines. Throughout the story, we see Riley's life fully from its interior - anxiety perpetuating Trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder), a celebrated love of queerness, and navigating a dysfunctional family life an overwhelmed mother played by Shannyn Sossamon and absent father. Among her comrades, Riley is the first to question authority, to be open about improving, and wanting others to do better. Starring outside of her breakout role from Reservation Dogs, Jacobs tows the fine line to not be rebellious for rebellious' sake but to assert herself where so much of her training has no room for error. She is the exact leading star the film needs to give Riley all different shades of strength and vulnerability.

Witnessing players getting wiped out, enduring bone-breaking injuries, battered feet, and endless hours of precise choreography, becomes the unknowing sacrifice only those from the inside truly know about.

And, as a counterpart to Riley, there is Eileen. She is everything that Riley looks up to. But, in the pursuit of being at the top, Eileen's iron-clad standards brings to question whether her teaching techniques are brutal in general, or brutal because she does not present herself softer as a woman. As she says, "If I were Bill Belichick, you wouldn’t look at me like that" after a disastrous practice, and Riley comes to her almost like a daughter wanting compassion where there is little to be given. Their mentor-mentee relationship teeters on being fully realized, as Evan Rachel Woods delivers a wonderful blend of ruthlessness and impartiality - she's exacting and straight-forward in what her character demands but extracts enough empathy for a female and queer coach who refuses to be seen as weak.

Written by Joanne Sarazen, most of the conflict lies in the head games the lead character is pulled towards and heightened by those around them. While the tension of Jacobs and Woods takes center stage, Sarazen leaves enough room for glimmers of the supporting roles to become warm outliers amidst the stress and pressure - Thomas Antony Olajide as Eileen's right hand man Devon, Kudakwashe Rutendo as Riley's compassionate girlfriend Amanda, Olunike Adeliyi as Amanda's life-of-the-party mother, and Noa DiBerto as Riley's bubbly teammate Rachel.

Between the leads and supporting cast, the film is a mix of a thriller and young adult drama, doing its best not to cast everyone in the same light. But just like nerves and excitement drum up the same physicality - elevated heart rate, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, sensory overload - sometimes the production reutilizes elements to recreate a similar mood- swirling cinematography, claustrophobic camera work, a pulsing soundtrack. Many shots seemed to capture an aesthetic more than adding to the story; at times dazzling and dynamic, but also making transitions at times uneven. The film's ambition in trying to achieve the high octane energy falls slightly short as similar films - the unrelenting intimidation of Whiplash and obsession with transcendence from Black Swan. It holds more steady as a solid coming-of-age film with thoughtful queer representation on and behind the screen (director D.W. Waterson identifies as non-binary, helms an LGBTQ+ cast, and and the film is produced by Eliot Page's Page Boy Productions)

Like many entries in the sports genre, Waterson focuses on how an athlete's inner conflict is on the verge of exposing Riley to her worst self-doubts or gifting her with the ability to take what she needs and use it as fuel. Structurally, there may be familiar elements with Backspot in comparison to other athlete/performer vs mentor films. But there is a refreshing twist that buoys with the notion that anyone in pursuit of a greater goal may suffer for their performance but therein lies deeper choices on how far to let those sacrifices take them - it can push you to the finishing line, to realize it's okay to be yourself first and walk away. Within the best of what Backspot features, is the lesson that it is enough to try and fail, or try and succeed, but most importantly, to try anyways.

Rating: ★★★1/2☆☆

Note: I was provided with a screener to provide this review. BackspotBackspot is available in select cinemas May 31st.

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