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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

AFF Review: Cheerleader

Cheerleader, directed by newcomer Irving Franco, takes place in an average high school sometime during the 1980s and follows Mickey (Catherine Blades) as she navigates the complicated dynamics of her friends and numerous boyfriends. Through her quirky valley girl narration we learn about her inner struggles and how complex the life of a teenage girl can really be from the inside looking out as she finds a genuine connection with the computer geek Bottles (Chris Bert) despite the mocking jokes it elicits from her so-called friends.

The film has a heavy dose of Clueless and wears that and other influences on its sleeve, but the tone and setting of the film are done so well that it didn't come across as derivative. The 80s production design is phenomenal, from the neon windbreakers to the geometric-themed wallpaper and hairstyles. It's fun as hell, and is impressively consistent for an indie flick on a presumably shoestring budget. A big part of pulling off this tone and era is in the music, which is quite well done by co-composers Michael Grazi and Franco (who has his hands in nearly every department of the film). The soft synth pads and reverb-soaked guitars and drums recall Air's Virgin Suicides soundtrack and really act as the glue that holds the illusion of the world together. (You can check out some samples of the soundtrack here)

The characters, too, have a bit of 80s stereotyping going on, but Cheerleader toes the line between stylish mockery and loving homage very well. Only in a few instances–Buttons' over-the-top and awesomely ridiculous computer setup which he uses to talk to his parents–feel like they're veering into Kung Fury territory. Otherwise the 80s backdrop is really just there for flavor, and while it does seem to be the crux of the movie on first glance, the characters and central narrative stand on their own outside of it.

Blades in the lead role is particularly good; she's silly but totally human, and draws on the empathy of the audience in an impressive way. Her inner monologue has a superficiality to it on the surface, but combined with her physical performance produces some smart and cutting insights into the character. There's surprising subtlety to her bubblegum chewing performance, and there's a good balance of teenage goofiness and genuine heartbreak throughout.

While Blades is the clear highlight, the whole cast is populated with wonderful characters. A few are one sided caricatures of the hot-headed jock or the bitchy gossip, but by and large they are well rounded and three-dimensional. For example, the twins Violet and Florence (Connie and Caryn Esch, respectively), start as a joke, but over the course of the film we learn that Florence is having trouble separating herself from her meaner sister and being treated as a different person. The film is peppered with these important character moments, and they are paced nicely to add to the overall narrative rather than disrupt it.  

At the screening for Cheerleader, several audience members noted that there are not enough female oriented stories being told onscreen. For every Furiosa, there are a dozen male led action movies, and the amount of introspective dramas and comedies centered around female leads and ensembles is unfortunately somewhat rare. Cheerleader is a great example of how to do a female led film right. It dives into the mind and thoughts of a teenage girl in a way that feels genuine and doesn't pigeonhole Mickey into the "slut" or "good girl" niches that are usually used. Instead, we find that Mickey is a good person who is a bit promiscuous, who is exploring her options as she steps into adulthood. Although she might worry about what other people think of her, the film it self never sits in judgment of her; in fact, it doesn't really judge any of the characters, but rather uses them to populate a world that feels familiar and recognizable, sometimes painfully so.

There are few moments that raise the low budget indie film red flags–no awkward editing, no poor sound or lighting, no cringe-worthy performances. Instead, Cheerleader is a fun, well-crafted, and extraordinarily promising film, the kind that moviegoers ought to be supporting and seeking out. I am certain that Franco and Blades both have interesting futures ahead of them, and I'm already on the hook for whatever they each decide to do next.

The Atlanta Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Cheerleader, and the film will also be showing at the Florida Film Festival later this month. For more information about the movie, please visit the official website.
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