Film Review – Backspot



Backspot (2023) depicts the world of competitive cheer. Don’t let the smiles, glittery outfits, and upbeat music fool you – to be a champion level squad takes dedication, hard work, and sacrifice. Injuries, doubt, and the fear of being replaced are a constant presence. We saw an in-depth version of this in the Netflix documentary series, Cheer. Here, director D.W. Waterson (who also cowrites with Joanne Sarazen) takes a narrative approach, focusing on a single person and how their entire life is dictated by their commitment to the sport. While the result is uneven, there’s enough intrigue to draw us in and hold our attention.  

Watching it, I was constantly reminded of Whiplash (2014). While that film was set a world away from cheer – in the cutthroat confines of a music conservatory – the obsessive drive for perfection is shared. Much in the same way a drummer’s hands bleed after hours of practice, a member of a cheer squad also puts their wellbeing on the line – to the point of serious injury. Waterson’s direction keys in on specific details. The camera willingly switches into slow motion to give us close ups of bloody feet, bumps and bruises, and bodies slamming into each other when something goes wrong. P.O.V. shots put us in the place of a tumbler or flyer as they twirl and spin in the air – with the imagery violently shaking back and forth. Needless to say: it is really difficult to excel in this arena.


But that is what fuels our protagonist, Riley (Devery Jacobs). Riley is an up-and-coming cheerleader who strives to make the Thunderhawks, an all-star cheer squad. She is so intent on moving up, that when she botches a tumbling routine in front of the Thunderhawks’ coach, Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood), she gets up and demands to do it again. Luckily, Riley – along with her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) and friend Rachel (Noa DiBerto) are all chosen to join. But the celebration quickly wears out when the trio realize just how demanding Eileen is, and how much of a toll the hours of hellish practice takes on their personal lives.

Backspot works best when it highlights how much Riley desires to be the best. The narrative takes on a traditional sports arc – in that it highlights the extensive strain it takes to compete. We get numerous training montages where the squad goes over their routine again and again and again, fighting exhaustion to get everything right. This unrelenting pressure – led by Eileen’s overbearing personality – acts as a weight on Riley’s shoulders. We see it chip away at her mental state. The growing anxiety causes her to nervously pick the hair from her eyebrows. There are several instances where she, Amanda, and Rachel will go on a bender just to relieve the mounting tension. But being part of the Thunderhawks means something different for Riley. She is so possessed with winning that not many people can relate with her – not her girlfriend, nor her mother Tracy (Shannyn Sossamon). Riley may be part of a squad, but she increasingly feels like she is on an island.

I was mostly invested in the details of the training – the grind it out nature of the practice sessions was fascinating. Waterson hints at the darker side of the profession. When the squad prepares for their big competition, the editing gives us yet another slow-motion montage of them putting on their costumes, applying makeup, and fixing their hair. Set against a thumping soundtrack, there’s an almost sinister tone underlying the sequence. It’s as though the squad puts on all the clothes and lipstick to cover the pain and anguish they went through to get there.


My interest began to wane whenever the story moved away from the cheer sections and settled into the interpersonal scenes. Unfortunately, the writing is not strong enough to flesh out the character dynamics. Riley’s relationship with Amanda seems to go up and down too abruptly. They go from loving one another to resentment and back again at the flip of a switch. Riley’s admiration and fear of Eileen is undercooked as well. It’s clear that Riley looks up to Eileen as a mentor figure, but her view of Eileen’s coaching tactics is hazy at best. We’re not sure if Riley sees Eileen as a positive role model or a negative one. All these characters in Riley’s life surround her in rotating fashion. The style became repetitive, like a round robin of supporting roles all meant to give Riley more insight into herself. Sadly, the interactions weren’t developed enough to feel substantial or thought provoking.

Of course, the movie wouldn’t be complete without showcasing the big routine at the national competition. From the get-go, it’s obvious that many of the actors have experience in cheer (or at least in dance and gymnastics). Waterson makes sure that we can clearly see Devery Jacobs in the middle of the commotion, allowing the camera to follow her throughout (once again in slow motion). The entire set is shot in one continuous take, with no apparent cuts. It’s an impressive feat. If you ever watched a cheer competition on TV before, then you would know that the routines are usually shot from a wide angle to get everyone in view. Here, the moving camera maintains medium to close up perspectives, weaving in and out and around the performers. It amplifies the complexity of the choreography – how so many moving parts can be synchronized into one complete whole.  

Although Backspot has some rough edges – particularly when it comes to the character development – I was struck by the technical aspects of it. Not just in the cheer scenes, but in the cinematic devices Waterson utilized to tell the story. How the camera moved, its positioning, the cleverness of the editing, and the use of sound/music all stood out. You don’t have to be a fan of cheer to find something worth noting here. There’s plenty of style, and that makes up for a lot of the shortcomings. I may not have loved this one, but I sure admired it.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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