SXSW Review – ‘Backspot’ Shows the Side Effects of Success

SXSW Review – ‘Backspot’ Shows the Side Effects of Success
Cheerleader Riley (Devery Jacobs) does a push-up and looks into the camera. Courtesy SXSW

The world of competitive sports is filled with extremely motivated people and a great deal of pressure to succeed. Those two elements can combine to create a toxic, unhealthy environment in which the safety and mental well-being of athletes is not adequately considered and monitored. Playing sports while in high school can increase that tension even more with the need for good grades and a promising future. Backspot adds personal stakes and identity exploration to the equation for a gripping, unsettling look at the need to be the best.

Riley (Devery Jacobs) is the talented backspot on her cheerleading squad. She gets an enticing opportunity to level up to the Thunderhawks, an elite All Star team coached by the no-nonsense Eileen McNamara (Evan Rachel Wood). Barely watched at home by her eternally distracted and soft-spoken mother (Shannyn Sossamon), Riley pours herself into her craft and into her relationship with her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo). But when the stakes get more demanding, Riley pushes herself to the limit and has no intention of looking back, determined to do whatever she needs to show Eileen that she is worthy of this game-changing chance.

Backspot, which premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival and boasts Elliot Page as an executive producer, is the feature debut of non-binary director D.W. Waterson. Originally made as a proof-of-concept short with Jacobs in 2017, Waterson describes the film as the kind of queer story that they wish they could have seen growing up. One particularly potent moment sees Eileen mentioning her ex-wife to a delighted Riley and Amanda, who think that their tough-as-nails coach is even cooler given that she was married to a woman, an instance of positive representation that likely makes them feel like they too could achieve her degree of success with the right effort.

D.W. Waterson. Credit: Vita Cooper

Jacobs is a talented actress best known for anchoring Reservation Dogs. She brings a true drive and sincerity to Riley, who is prone to visibly painful episodes in which she pushes herself too far and loses her grip on what’s happening around her yet remains explicitly focused on her desired goals. She helps to give Riley more dimension, showing how she relates to her mother and to her girlfriend, as well as to other members of the team whose brief hesitation creates an opening for her to step in and show off what she can do. Her stone-faced reactions to certain setbacks are just as vivid and telling.

Wood continues an intriguing new phase of her career following her humorous supporting turn as Madonna in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story and her four-season role as an android seeking to break free of her programming in Westworld. She brings an unapologetic toughness to Eileen, someone who sees how hard she is working these teenage girls and believes that they can only be made better by putting aside any sense of compassion or friendliness. She humanizes Eileen just enough to show that she knows what she is doing, even if it brings with it many risks that won’t affect her as much as they will her young disciples.

Waterson’s first feature is a confident and effective showcase of the way in which drive can turn into something much more sinister. It’s reminiscent of The Novice but not quite as dark, though the world of cheerleading features an entirely different type of pressure from rowing despite being grounded on land rather than out on the water. The strength of Jacobs’ performance combines with a claustrophobic narrative to deliver a film that’s both compelling in its own right and makes for an effective cautionary tale about the dangers of investing too much without properly taking care of yourself.

Grade: B+ 

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Backspot makes its international premiere in the Festival Favorites section at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

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