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TIFF 2023 Review: Backspot – “Devery Jacobs leads with a confident portrayal”

Devery Jacobs in BACKSPOT. Courtesy of TIFF

Not as flashy as, say, Bring it On, not as bleak and dark as 2021’s The Novice, director D.W. Waterson’s Backspot lays somewhere in between when it comes to the world of teen sports.  Here they put the spotlight on the elite athletes of a top cheerleading squad to look at the effects the rigour of training and pressure of competition have on their physical and mental health.  

Riley (Devery Jacobs) and her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo, one of TIFF’s Rising Stars this year) are both part of a cheerleading squad, a fun, close-knit group.  The pair have a sweet relationship that includes lots of snacks, laughs and singing along to Legally Blonde the musical while driving back from practice.  But, while happy in their relationship, they yearn to get to the next athletic level, hoping to belong to the elite cheer team that trains in the next gym.  

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When injuries on the Thunderhawks mean that three spots open up, Riley, Amanda and their teammate, self-described “professional third wheel” Rachel (a scene-stealing Noa DiBerto) are selected to fill the void.  Already a perfectionist, Riley starts to feel the pressure under the leadership of the strict, tough-as-nails coach, Eileen (Evan Rachel Woods).  As her anxiety starts to build it has consequences for her relationship and for her athletic future as she pushes herself dangerously close to her breaking point.  

From the onset Waterson puts their distinctive style on full display, even more impressive when you find out the entire film was shot in 17 days.  In a brightly lit training gym, the young women do backflips and other gymnastic feats with what appears to be GoPro-like footage dropping you right into the middle of practice.  The director, also a Toronto area DJ, often uses dance music throughout the film, certainly upping the energy levels and again giving Backspot a unique feel.  

Backspot does waste some opportunity to explore some themes that they leave at surface level.  There is the suggestion that Riley’s mother (played by Shannyn Sossamon) might be suffering some emotional abuse from her husband that is never really fleshed out.  There is some reference to body image issues within the cheerleading sport, only to have the character who brings this up not really be seen again with no follow-up.  There are others above these examples, but there was certainly a chance to add a bit more depth to the film by expanding on these mentions, yet Backspot mostly avoids confronting these topics.  

What Backspot does do particularly well is concentrate on Riley and her increasing anxiety, and Devery Jacobs (best known for TV’s Reservation Dogs) leads with a confident portrayal.  Often shown in extreme close up, compulsively pulling out her eyebrow hair, muffled sound in the background as her, and our, discomfort mounts, Jacobs and Waterson seem in sync, able to push emotional boundaries with their combination of visuals, sound and performance.  Jacobs chemistry with the outstanding Rutendo, who acts as the balance to Riley’s devouring ambition, is also of note.

There are moments where Backspot really flourishes, especially in its finale where a seemingly innocent comment made earlier in the film comes back in an amusing fashion that’s also an impressive one-shot.  It does a great job of depicting these elite athletes as the kids they truly still are, eating burgers after practice, at their part-time job at the local movie theatre, and navigating life. 

At the same time, Waterson makes sure our time with Riley leaves us experiencing the anxiety this level of pressure, perfectionism and ambition can accompany. However, unlike Riley, whose position as backspot provides support for the athletes above, the film unfortunately leaves some of the issues it brings up, hanging.  

Backspot had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival September 8, 2023.  For more information go to

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