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(Check our Chris Reed’s movie review of Backspot, in theaters now. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

In Backspot, the feature debut of Canadian director D.W. Waterson, the competition may be fierce, but at the end of the day, the true stakes revolve around friendship and kindness. What are you prepared to do to win? For protagonist Riley (Devery Jacobs, Hulu’s Reservation Dogs series), the answer is unclear, though the raw ambition is palpable.

The sport is cheerleading, and the young strivers we meet are not here just for the fun of it. When an opportunity arises to move to the big time via openings on the red-hot Thunderhawks squad, teammates Riley, Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo, Bad Influence), and Rachel (Noa DiBerto) jump at the chance to try out. They get in, but others do not. So be it.

Riley and Amanda are in a relationship, and despite their class differences (Riley comes from some kind of money, while Amanda does not) are very much in love. At first joyful to remain together on the more competitive corps, they nevertheless start to see the change in very different lights. Riley wants victory at all costs, while Amanda has other concerns, rooted in her very different circumstances.

Head Coach Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood, Kajillionaire) is part of the reason why Riley takes so strongly to the new circumstances. A no-nonsense, tough leader—who happens to also be queer—Eileen inspires Riley by example. But her take-no-prisoners approach proves a bit much for Amanda. Fortunately, Assistant Coach Devon (Thomas Antony Olajide, Learn to Swim), though outwardly no friendlier than Eileen, offers some occasional additional perspective.

The film is best in its scenes of interpersonal relationships and training. Waterson, working from a script by Joanne Sarazen (Tammy’s Always Dying)—based on Waterson’s own idea—delivers intense moments of physical triumph that showcase the stars’ athletic prowess (or the director’s ability to fake it). In addition, the tension they build throughout shines a light on the need for human connection and collaboration even in the moments where we yearn to spread our individual wings.

Not all aspects of the narrative are equally arresting, however. The ultimate trajectory of the piece is predictable, while also shortchanging certain details of the characters that might help deepen our understanding of their lives. They appear to be of high-school age, yet are never in class. Surely the additional demands of schoolwork only increase their daily burden. We don’t need to know everything, but these elliptical gaps raise questions that nag at our consciousness.

And then there is the big set piece of the competition routine, which to anyone who has watched Netflix’s Cheer series (or any actual cheerleading competition), fails to impress. There’s no way I or anyone I know could ever do this kind of thing—kudos to anyone who can—but it somewhat strains credulity that the final number we see would score as high as we are led to believe it does. Those criticisms aside, Backspot has enough going for it in the performances and character bonding to make for engaging viewing. If not overly profound, it still moves.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

Backspot movie; D.W. Waterson

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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