"But I'm a Cheerleader" is pure camp, from its often hammy acting to its candy-colored ambience to its plot about an in-crowd high schooler whose panicked suburban parents pack her away to retreat where sexually tilted teenagers are supposed to be "cured" of homosexual tendencies.
A social satire with a John Waters-inspired bent, the picture casts caustic Natasha Lyonne ("Slums of Beverly Hills") deliberately against type as a peppy-under-peer-pressure cheerleader who eats tofu, listens to Melissa Ethridge and is so indifferent to the drooling advances of her hunky super-jock boyfriend that her friends and Bible-beater family hold an intervention and confront her with the fact that they all think she must be a lesbian.
In spite of cheer-like protests, Lyonne is sent to a group home called True Directions, where effeminate boys in baby blue shirts and ties, and butch girls in crisp, pink Donna Reed attire are inundated with antiquated ideals about sex roles and encouraged to dry-hump inmates of the opposite sex by a staff of heavily in denial "reformed" gays.
An overly gleeful (and practically skipping) RuPaul Charles -- out of drag, sporting attentively-groomed facial hair and wearing a T-shirt that reads "Straight is Great" -- tries to teach the camp's prissy boys to fix blue cars with blue tools and play football (in blue uniforms, natch) to put some hair on their chests.
The girls are roomed together (mistake!) in a frosting-pink, Barbie Dream House bedroom by night. By day the camp's determined proprietor (Cathy Moriarty, chomping at the bit with great enthusiasm) pounds into them the joys of traditional domesticity -- vacuuming, changing diapers, wearing rubber gloves. Out of sheer frustration, most of these activities become ironically sexualized.
Once a day the group is brought together for a brainwashing session where they're forced to "remember" what made them turn gay -- like, maybe, having a mother who got married in pants. The shame!
Director Jamie Babbit, who conceived the story but didn't write the script, keeps the atmosphere sarcastic yet light for most of the film with a goofy, doofy comedic style, reinforced by lots of perspective camera and fish-eye lens shots, and joyously over-the-top acting.
Early in the movie a hilarious make-out scene with Lyonne and her boyfriend sets the flavor for the comedy as she lies prone, mouth open, eyes wandering, making no effort whatsoever. The guy slobbers all over her, hardly noticing her empty effort, while slow-motion flashes of cheerleaders bouncing boobs and upturned skits flash through Lyonne's mind. Uh oh!
But even though Babbit gets carried away at times trying to be silly while making a point (homosexuality is not something that can be twelve-stepped away), her absolutely ideal cast keeps the comedy anchored in exaggerated but emotionally true performances. Especially Lyonne, who plays her character's naivete with a wink, stitching her brow in sexual confusion as this reprogramming camp sex talk starts to have the opposite of its intended effect on her. It isn't long before she's planning an escape with an abrasive, resistant co-camper (Clea Duvall, "Girl, Interrupted") who stirs something in her loins.
While "But I'm a Cheerleader" is consistently amusing, it becomes overly self-conscious and loses a lot of steam in the middle, then tries to recover with an overwrought and forced finale. Sometimes the campiness is just too much and the sarcasm toward conservatives too bitter to be funny. The distractingly sketchy production values leave a lot to be desired, too, with boom mikes and even lens shades dipping deep into the frame more than half a dozen times.
But "Cheerleader" never pretends to be anything more than a cheap, spirited satire with a narrow target audience, so as long as it's entertaining -- and it is -- the movie's considerable narrative and technical shortcomings are of little significance.