What would a teen sports movie be without (deep breath): family troubles, physical trauma, classifiable disorders, emotional upheavals, demanding coaches, all-important final competitions, fraying romantic relationships, major intra-team drama, secrets, lies, drugs, drinking, partying, out of control ambition, and unchecked competitive spirit? But while all those elements might feel, sound, and look familiar, reoriented within D.W. Waterson’s feature filmmaking debut, they take on fresh power. You may think you know your sports movie tropes, but you’ve never seen them used quite this way — that is, within a queer cheerleading drama firmly focused on complex female characters — and Waterson’s “Backspot” delights in skewing such expectations for often (but not always) new ends.
Featuring “Reservation Dogs” star Devery Jacobs (who also produces the project) in yet another breakout role in a seeming string of them, “Backspot” won’t necessarily surprise its audience, but it will give them a new framework from which to consider who gets to lead their own sports drama. In the case of “Backspot,” that’s Jacobs as rising gymnast Riley, who may not be the best on her mid-level team, but is in possession of the kind of drive and ambition that should catapult her to the top of the heap. When a spot (or, to be more precise, a bunch of spots) open up on the local championship team (gee, I wonder why so many gals aren’t cutting it these days? could it be their hard-nosed coach?), Riley goes for it, but the price of glory may be too high.
Riley already has a sense of the cost: she’s besieged by both panic attacks and the hair-pulling disorder trichotillomania (Waterson excels at immersing the audience in Riley’s most unnerving moments, and many sequences in “Backspot” indicate that the filmmaker would do incredible work within the confines of the horror genre). But there’s good stuff in her life too, like her relationship with girlfriend and teammate Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo), which is loving and warm and fun (Rutendo is given less to do than Jacobs, but she takes the somewhat staid role of “respectful, reasonable teen” and adds real dimension to it). But everything flows from Riley’s literal position on the team: a “backspot” is the person at the back of a stunt, supporting the flashy work, the person holding it all together.
When Riley, Amanda, and their teammate Rachel (Noa DiBerto) get the chance to audition for the high-flying Thunderhawks, coached by the fierce Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood), they jump at the chance, even while being fully cognizant of the extreme pressures that are to come. Eileen is no-nonsense to the max— here’s a coach who wears crisp pantsuits to practice, who doesn’t take no for an answer, who will slit your throat should you so much as hum that Dexys Midnight Runners song — but whose techniques may no longer be spelling out success, one of many intriguing ideas not fully interrogated by “Backspot.”
While Waterson, working off their own story as inspired by their previous short of the same name (Waterson identifies as non-binary) and with a script by Joanne Sarazen, seems to revel in reworking all the many sports movie tropes that pile into “Backspot,” that doesn’t mean they are always successful at that. Many times, these oft-used storylines and themes get in the way of other elements hitting their own marks. Perhaps we’d like to spend more time with Riley and her mom (Shannyn Sossaman) before Waterson kicks into yet another montage of debaucheries and disorders, or hear more about how Riley and Amanda first got together. These are interesting, unique characters, let them breathe. They deserve to.
That claustrophobia does extend into other bits of the film, however, like the limited world of Riley and Amanda, mostly confined on a circuit between the gym, their bedrooms, and the Cineplex where Amanda works (either the product of incredible product placement or a true affection for Canada’s most popular theater chain), setting them on a loop that seems impossible to break out of. How — and why and when — that finally happens won’t surprise anyone who has seen a teen sports drama before, but the pieces and players that get us across the finish line are thrilling indeed. They’re enough to support not just this film, but hopefully, many more like it.
“Backspot” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.