TIFF 2023: Backspot Review

Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs anchors D.W. Waterson’s intense cheerleading drama.

As its opening montage begins, propelled by kinetic first-person camerawork and a pulsating house score, Backspot immediately gets you buzzing. It fuels you with the kind of adrenaline made not just for an elite cheer squad but also a hotly anticipated festival premiere.

D.W. Waterson and Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs’ passion project began as one of the first shorts produced under their co-led production banner, Night is Y, in 2017. Since then, Jacobs’ star power has skyrocketed (Reservation DogsEcho) and Waterson has developed the story into a full-on feature. Co-produced by Elliot Page’s similarly sprouting PageBoy Productions, Backspot intends to light the fuse for two likely-to-be strong voices in queer cinema. Much like the success of a tight All-State cheer routine, a lot is riding on this. 

Thankfully, all parties have lived up to their promise, though still with room to grow. Waterson’s debut feature shows signs of a strong, stylistic voice at the helm of an otherwise conventional story; Riley (Jacobs, reprising her role from the original short) is a highly driven cheerleading backspot who, alongside her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo, TIFF Rising Star), graduates into the hotly competitive Thunderhawks squad. As the team’s intense standards exert pressure on Riley’s mind and body, her relationships begin to fracture and her anxieties escalate to dangerous places. 

Waterson’s greatest strength is how their many specific visual and sonic choices help to engage viewers in both the world of cheerleading and Riley’s own state of being. Docu-style handheld camerawork puts you right in the thick of intense practices while Casey MQ’s electronic score – with a few excellent mixes produced by Waterson themself – heightens every hotly-paced moment on the mat.


When portraying Riley’s spiraling mental health, Waterson fully distorts her world, cycling between fast and slow motion, intense close-ups, tilt-shift lens work, and lighting effects to fully immerse you in her crippling mental instability. Jacobs, who has already proven her ability to quietly anchor powerful drama, continues to show her strength but at an entirely new level of rawness. The actress, formerly a professional gymnast, is also clearly doing many of her own stunts, which adds authenticity to the film’s physicality. 

The central relationship between Riley and Amanda is also where the film shines, though there isn’t quite enough of it. Jacobs and Rutendo’s chemistry is second-to-none, effortlessly exuding the joy and romance of young love but not without its emotional ups and downs. However, the curves and edges of their relationship don’t feel distinct. It’s unclear how the two became close or much of what makes them close beyond the basics. Riley’s unwavering commitment to the team clashes with Amanda’s more grounded attitude, but vignettes of her standard home life and job at the cineplex only do so much to paint her own inner struggles and desires.

This one facet of Backspot speaks to screenwriter Joanne Sarazen’s larger lack of balance between Riley’s inner state and the larger world surrounding it. Riley feels like a thoroughly refined character, a product of an industry with many difficult realities that Sarazen addresses but doesn’t realize externally. Sarazen criticizes the projected infantilization and body shaming of the sport, but little is shown of cheerleading beyond Riley’s view of herself, which focuses on the physical rather than the political.

In the same way, many supporting characters have strokes of specificity but not enough screentime to be strong support for the story. Evan Rachel Wood is hardened Thunderhawks captain Eileen, herself a queer woman and initially an aspirational figure for Riley. However, the film settles on a typical unfeeling portrayal despite her best moments being when she even slightly lets down her walls. Shannyn Sossamon is Riley’s mother, Tracy, who immediately highlights how far the apple has but also hasn’t fallen from the tree. Riley avoids her mother at all costs, which makes her largely a non-presence in the film. The parallels there could have made for the film’s ripest drama but it goes thoroughly unexamined.


Luckily, Sarazen’s humanizing third act saves Backspot from feeling inauthentic. Riley’s relationship with assistant coach Devon (Thomas Antony Olajide in one of the film’s most essential performances) unlocks the film’s heart and reminds us all that this film is at its strongest as a singular character study. Riley reckons with the very courageous act of simply being human and knowing her limits, something all of us need reminding of. Paired with Waterson’s electric direction, Backspot goes out with a bang and solidifies itself as an exciting addition to this year’s Discovery section as well as a strong start to Night is Y and PageBoy’s respective oeuvres.

Backspot screens as part of TIFF 2023, which runs from September 7 to 17.

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