Elite cheer squad from Brampton helps director show ‘grit and dirt’ of cheerleading in ‘Backspot’ premiering at TIFF

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Published September 7, 2023 at 10:37 am

D.W. Waterson, director of "Backspot," poses for a portrait in Toronto, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

D.W. Waterson wasn’t a cheerleader — but they did perform as one.

The director, whose first feature “Backspot” is set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, said they used to wear the uniform while DJing and playing drums on stage.

“I just loved the idea of being the cheer captain of an audience,” they said by video call ahead of the fest. “That uniform really brings something out in people.”

But when it came to making a film about cheer, Waterson said they were more interested in the athleticism than the esthetics.

“Backspot” tells the story of Riley, played by Canadian actress Devery Jacobs, who along with her girlfriend Amanda makes an elite cheer team led by an exacting coach, portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood.

To get beyond the pop cultural idea of a cheerleader, Waterson said they and writer Joanne Sarazen worked with Cheer Fuzion, a Brampton-based elite cheer squad. They attended practices and competitions, and saw what the athletes put their bodies through.

“They’re in the gym at least three days a week, and sometimes for the top teams in Canada, they’re doing all-day practices — like 12-hour practices with some breaks. So this is gruelling. This is intense. And I really wanted to show that off,” Waterson said.

“The way a male director might approach a football film, which is grit and dirt and blood and sweat and grittiness, that’s what I’m looking to bring to cheer.”

“Backspot” includes all of the above. Characters fall and get carted off to the hospital. At one point, the camera lingers on Riley after she gets kicked in the nose, blood running down her face. A coach shoves a tampon up her nostril to slow the bleeding.

Growing up in the early 2000s, Waterson said they were immersed in a veritable Eden of cheerleading media. From TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the movies “Bring It On” and “But I’m a Cheerleader,” pompom-toting teenagers were everywhere on screen.

“We see polish, we see smiles, we see makeup, we see tiny skirts; and everybody’s focused on the dumb cheerleader stereotype,” they said. “I really wanted to push past that.”

Waterson said they also lucked out with the cast.

Jacobs, also a producer on the project, was a gymnast for 10 years — a provincial champion — and did nearly all of her stunts herself, they said. Other cheerleaders past and present rounded out the cast, including Noa DiBerto, who is a member of Western University’s national championship-winning cheer team.

Waterson said they were thrilled to be able to capture the rigour of the sport on film.

“When we watch sports films there’s so much respect in the camera for the athleticism, for the skill, for the passion, for what these athletes are putting themselves through to attain a win or a great performance,” Waterson said. “I don’t feel like I’ve seen that a lot with female athletes.”

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