TIFF 2023 | Backspot (D.W. Waterson, Canada) — Discovery

By Angelo Muredda

“You need to be a brick shithouse,” steely cheerleading coach Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood) scolds her neurotic new charge Riley (Devery Jacobs) in D.W. Waterson’s Backspot, an overstuffed but energetic youth sports drama that has just enough texture to stand out. Whether Riley takes that advice or finds another way to live her best life by bridging her ambitions as an athlete with her needs as a queer teen is about as high as the narrative stakes go. That’s for the best, since there’s already more than enough movie to go around between the aggressive EDM soundtrack cues, occasional iPhone action photography of cheer routines, and propulsive music-video editing.

The film picks up with Riley and her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) shortly before they’ve been drafted into Eileen’s elite squad. While Amanda has the looks and the grace to make it all look easy—“This is the stuff that gets you trophies,” Eileen apologetically says in a mentoring session devoted to smiling—the more ambitious Riley is cursed with an honest face and blunt demeanour that always gives away exactly how hard she’s working, at everything.  

Jacobs is a magnetic performer, making Riley feel convincingly plucky and driven but never ingratiating; she commands the screen whether Riley’s engaging in a casual post-practice Theragun and junk food session with Amanda, or fighting off the post-traumatic urge to pluck her eyebrows with her fingers. She feels grounded even when the film is most untethered from reality, as in a strange extended product placement for Cineplex, or a canned moment where another guide gives Riley the familiar advice that “People are just people.” Waterson evinces some visual panache when capturing the physicality of the training, and there’s a queer specificity and shaggy-dog energy to the girls’ flirting and teasing hangouts after practice, but their commercial instincts are often at odds with their realist impulses. Luckily, in Jacobs they have a star that doesn’t require much coaching.