“Cheerleader” Review (****)

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Catherine Blades stars in Irving Franco’s “Cheerleader.”
The title “Cheerleader,” without knowing much about the film beforehand, might encourage misplaced ideas or associations about New York writer-director Irving Franco’s small and beautifully deliberate debut feature. That word alone makes me think of films like “Bring It On” or “The Replacements,” or any movie of similar vanity and flippancy. “Cheerleader,” however, is another thing entirely. It’s a film that moves in small waves. It’s a film that moves almost in slow motion. It quietly works its way into your emotional subconscious—in the way that you might walk from the shallow end of a pool to its deeper, thicker parts, without realizing it, until you feel yourself being hugged by the water.

“Cheerleader” seems to take place sometime during the 1980s (though it is never addressed) at a severely average high school, and Mickey (a fantastic Catherine Blades) inexpertly navigates both her high school halls and interpersonal social and romantic circles. With big, empathetic eyes and strawberry lipstick, Mickey appeals to her audience. She’s a natural in front of the camera and brings both a sincerity and levity to the role. She’s the popular girl; the girl who makes herself popular by saying things, however mean or conniving or unintentional, about her classmates. Mickey doesn’t like this part of high school, all the making fun and the insincerity, but she’s having a difficult time disentangling herself from it.

Throughout the first half of the film, in fact, she falls victim to it. In the film, Mickey hooks up with a boy ‘who calls himself Dent,’ but, really, she’s interested in another boy named Josh. So, Mickey decides to take out a glasses-wearing, computer genius named Buttons in an effort to make both boys jealous. In very predictable fashion, Mickey actually likes Buttons, but word travels fast and his adorable, nerdy feelings do, in fact, get hurt. Ah, high school. This story is not unheard-of, but the beauty of the film lies in its delivery. Franco creates a gorgeous piece of work here, because though the story itself isn’t shocking, the film is very much that. Mickey’s voiceover carries the narrative, and her confessions to the viewer are intimate and emotional.

Chris Bert as Buttons and Catherine Blades as Mickey in “Cheerleader.”

Blades creates a sense of nostalgia within the viewer without being condescending or mocking or derivative, and she does this while making her performance seem entirely effortless. I believe her when she tells me she’s in high school and ‘is just a kid,’ questioning why people are so mean. But while that’s true, she’s an entirely unconventional high school character. She doesn’t quite fit any of the stereotypes that are often assigned to high school girls. Though Blades does much of the heavy lifting, “Cheerleader” has a fantastic supporting cast; they expertly aid in aligning the pace and the narrative of the film.

Though “Cheerleader” seems to be loosely reminiscent by films like “Clueless” or even “Mean Girls;” there’s something uniquely grainy and reflective and sympathetic about its tone. The film has a zing or punch that’s similar to a very dry white wine—it almost arrests your sense in its smooth and shocking tartness. With the blocky computers and bright windbreaks, loud bubble gum and bleach-washed jeans, the set design is extremely impressive and a hilariously accurate homage to what life was once like. The soundtrack and music composition also helps to create this sense of atmosphere within the film.

There’s little else to demand from Franco in his debut feature, and “Cheerleader” stirs in me an eagerness to see his future work. At times, the lighting may have been a bit harsh, and I found the interactions with the teachers to be less than realistic, but his direction and the persuasive and nuanced performances create a rather special movie. “Cheerleader” screens at Sidewalk Film Festival and the Rome International Film Festival very soon, so be sure to check it out.

4 out of 5 stars.

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