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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra (Alex) P.

REVIEW: D.W. Waterson Sticks the Landing with Sapphic Sport Film 'BACKSPOT'

Updated: Jun 1

DISCLAIMER: This article contains minor spoilers for Backspot.

If you have looking for a new sapphic coming-of-age story, you're in luck! Backspot is exactly what you're looking for.

Backspot follows Riley (Devery Jacobs), a formidable backspot on a mid-level cheerleading squad. This all changes when Eileen McNamara (Evan Rachel Wood) scouts said squad for new recruits to join the Thunderhawks, an All Star team banking on high performance from all of its members. Fueled by ambitiousness and love for her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo), Riley would excel only if she could get her anxiety under control. Riley will do anything to impress her new coach, stemming from her lack of being heard and appreciated in her home life. Riddled with anxieties and competition looming, this young, queer athlete seeks to decipher her own voice from her teammates while forming a healthier relationship to cheerleading.

The Thunderhawks in Backspot. © XYZ FIlms

One mesmerizing part of this film includes D.W. Waterson's use of foreshadowing to make the audience feel more connected to every character involved. While there are many individual character arcs within Backspot, Waterson ties them together with a bow made out of subtleties the audience can't help but notice: every detail pieces into something without leaving any information behind. Despite this being Waterson's directorial debut, they accomplish this with such expertise that you'd think they've directed dozens of motion pictures before Backspot.

I felt compelled by this storyline expertly taking its viewer and placing them directly into the lives of these characters without missing a beat. Waterson can't help but make you like these individuals and understand all of their struggles, even when they aren't explicitly stated. This can directly be seen not only in Riley's story, but Amanda's as well (more on that later). The use of clichés from numerous forms of cheer-centered media acts as a helping hand to the audience with understanding the character work of Backspot first and foremost.

Evan Rachel Wood behind the scenes of Backspot.

After sitting with these characters for a little over an hour and a half, I found myself finishing this film with a deep understanding and respect for Waterson's ability to throw me into this world of the Thunderhawks and feel fully immersed by it. All of this was accomplished with excellent character work being supported by the unique flare of camera work and editing seen throughout this picture. If Waterson can do this with their directorial debut, they will be an unstoppable force in the future. Backspot should rightfully earn D.W. Waterson a spot on your Directors to Watch list.

Backspot's electric directorial and technical work could not be effective without the brilliant performances of its cast. The ensemble lifts Waterson's intended narrative by inviting audiences to this world from the very start of this film. After watching, the two performances that stood out the most to me were from Devery Jacobs and Kudakwashe Rutendo.

Riley (Devery Jacobs) in Backspot. © XYZ FIlms

Devery Jacobs (Riley) is the definitive stand out of this film with an incredibly dynamic performance sprinkled with the nuances and personality of a real figure. Backspot relies on Riley's day-to-day transformation from a mid-level cheerleader to Thunderhawk in order for its narrative to be effective, requiring its lead to show a multitude of emotions ranging from lovesick to anxiety - Jacobs excels in all.

As I've mentioned before, this picture places you directly in the lives of these characters from the start. Without missing a beat, Jacobs is able to transport the viewer into Riley's existence while realistically exploring all of the emotions one would feel while going through a major, life-changing event. Part of this includes viewers getting to see the physical and mental toll that anxiety takes on an individual in the duration of this film. Having an actress who is able to realistically pull of all this off can make or break a film: Jacobs' magnificent performance makes Backspot soar.

Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) in Backspot. © XYZ FIlms

Kudakwashe Rutendo is the undeniable breakout star from Backspot - she certainly is mine. Similar to Jacobs, Rutendo gives a nuanced and realistic portrayal of Amanda: Riley's girlfriend on the same cheer team going through different experiences than her partner's while advancing to the Thunderhawks. The contrast with Rutendo's performance is that it includes simplicities that viewers have to use to get a full understanding of the woman she's portraying. Even with Backspot focusing on Riley as its lead character, Amanda feels just as fleshed out in her own right. The downside of this feeling left me with wanting to see more of Amanda's life nearing the end of this film. Regardless, I'm excited to see what Kudakwashe Rutendo does next with her film career.

Left to right: Riley (Devery Jacobs) and Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) in Backspot. © XYZ FIlms

Backspot's undeniable beating heart is the relationship between Riley and Amanda. From start to finish, viewers are able to see the highs and lows between this pair. The striking chemistry between Jacobs and Rutendo allows for viewers to experience these moments with them. The personal moments between Riley and Amanda were not only some of my favorite moments of the film, but they allowed for Waterson's world to feel more realistic. The choice of focusing this movie on two young, queer women of color brings a unique narrative into the picture that hasn't been explored with typical cliché cheer stories. The connection between Riley and Amanda not only makes the hardships of becoming an All Star more painful to the viewer, but it brings a refreshing light to how a connection between teammates can be more than just friendship. Centering a cheer story on queer women in what's known to be a predominately straight sport is nice to see from a lesbian perspective, especially when the leads have the chemistry to make their connection believable.

Eileen McNamara (Evan Rachel Wood) in Backspot. © XYZ FIlms

Waterson highlights other gay characters in their ensemble, including Evan Rachel Woods' Eileen and Thomas Antony Olajide's Devon. The simple implementation of queer role models provides another narrative young LGBTQ+ people can relate to: wanting to impress your queer elders. Viewers can see this theme in this film through Riley's interpretation of Eileen. While some (straight) audience members will certainly view this message as a form of athletes wanting to show off for their coach, others will be able to respect that this story revolves around a young, queer woman wanting to impress a lesbian in authority.

Backspot's casual placement of LGBTQ+ characters throughout isn't something unheard of within cinema, but it is something to respect within the overall message of this film. As a lesbian, I can only hope other filmmakers take one out of Waterson's journal when it comes to creating queer characters with understanding the intersectionality of queerness between communities within everyday, slice-of-life and coming of age movies while casually pursuing storytelling with the same care as straight characters and their relationships.

Rating: 4.5/5


D.W. Waterson's directorial debut Backspot, starring Devery Jacobs and Evan Rachel Wood, releases on May 31 in select theaters across the U.S. and on demand .


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