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Backspot: BFI Flare Film Review

A young girl does sit ups in the film Backspot

Devery Jacobs leads Backspot, an intensely frustrating yet important drama centering around a teen who gets a spot on her dream cheerleading team. 

Riley (Devery Jacobs) wants a spot on the All Stars cheerleading team the Thunderhawks. She’s hopelessly desperate to be on the team, so she will do anything in her power to get on the squad. Every day, she trains with her lower ranked team in the gym next to the Thunderhawks, and everytime she leaves, she intently peers into the window of their gym, eyeing up all of their players, hoping one day she can be one of them. When a few spots on the team open up, Riley gets to try out. Riley is a backspot, a position that the Thunderhawks eagerly need, so is even more determined to impress her prospective coach. Riley’s audition is messy, but she refuses to let that define her, so she showcases her talents again – this time, landing all of her stunts effortlessly.

Coach Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood) is extremely impressed by Riley and two other girls, Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) and Rachel (Noa DiBerto), so she offers them a spot on the team that very same day. Riley loves her sport, sometimes too much, which puts her physical and mental health at risk. Her relationship with girlfriend Amanda becomes strained, too, especially when Eileen doesn’t have as much faith in Amanda as she does in Riley. Being on the Thunderhawks is all Riley has ever wanted, so she doesn’t realise how much the stress of working so intensely is jeopardising the rest of her life.

Each day is a chore for Riley, but she loves it. Being on the Thunderhawks has been her lifelong dream. With a vital statewide competition creeping up on the squad, the pressure is on for everyone to be in their prime. Eileen is stern and most of the team are scared of her. Riley is different, taking a liking to her coach more because she finds out that Eileen is gay. Having a queer role model at her side is fundamental to Riley and her development in her last few years as a teenager. This, however, becomes the centre of attention over her physical wellbeing, as she pushes her body into overdrive to impress her coach.

Jacobs is unbelievably likeable as the lead in Backspot. The entire ensemble radiates delight even in the most exhausting moments. DiBerto is particularly high-spirited, with such a smiley face when hanging out with her friends. Her character of Rachel is able to be serious during the cheer meets, but the second she gets out of the gym, she’s running around full of energy. Rachel is the girl everyone wants on their team, both on the squad and in real life.

Backspot: Clip (United Talent Agency / BFI Flare)

Writer-director D. W. Waterson first made Backspot as a 5 minute short back in 2015, which also starred Jacobs in the lead. It assuredly feels like a story of girlhood, but exemplifies various aspects of growing up, whatever gender you identify as. All of the girls in Backspot joke about menstrual cups in the locker room, not fitting in because they’re not “good-looking” enough and trying drugs for the first time at a sleepover. Backspot is an authentic take on being young and wanting to impress your peers and those you look up to.

Wood is perfectly cast as an austere coach, even if her scenes are limited. When she’s on screen, you get an insight into her as a person and how the Thunderhawks are her entire life. Eileen seems lonely, eating her cold leftovers in her car whilst rewatching practice on her tablet. In training, she’s stringent, and some of the girls find her unapproachable because of this. But it’s because she really cares. Riley is so inspired by the Thunderhawks in the same way Eileen is. I loved seeing Wood in a leadership role in Backspot as it’s in contrast to a lot of her previous films where she’s a love interest or a singing cartoon queen (yes, she’s in Frozen!). 

Backspot isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s refreshing that the main characters are queer, rather than having the cheerleader going after the captain of the boys’ soccer team. This makes for an insightful watch, as there are different kinds of conversations between the girls and their parents. It’s the kind of film teens need as they’re growing up, so they’re able to see themselves on screen and not just the stereotypical cheerleaders we’re used to. Backspot is an absolute delight.

Backspot will be screened at BFI Flare on March 16-18, 2024 and will be released in US theaters on May 31, 2024. Read our Backspot interview with writer-director D.W. Waterson and star-producer Devery Jacobs!

Backspot interview: Devery Jacobs & D.W. Waterson – loud and clear
At the BFI Flare gala screening of the film Backspot, we interview actress-producer Devery Jacobs and writer-director D.W. Waterson.
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