Lifetime Review: 'Killer Cheer Mom'
Denise Richards plays a sinister stepmom in this solid opening act to Lifetime's latest cheerleader marathon.
Riley Dillon (Courtney Fulk) has had a rough go of it lately. Not only is she starting her junior year in a new town and new school, but she's still struggling to come to terms with Amanda (Denise Richards), her father's new wife and her new stepmother. All of Amanda's attempts at bonding with Riley just have her wanting to pull further away and get back to Chicago. The first bit of solace she finds at her new school comes in the form of the Hamilton High cheer team. Impressed by their skills and wanting to get back into cheer after giving it up freshman year, Riley decides to try out. Unfortunately, after going two years without touching a pom-pom, Riley is way out of practice.
But Riley has a secret weapon on her side--one she doesn't even know she has. While Amanda assures Riley she has all the spirit needed to make the team, Amanda wants to guarantee her stepdaughter's cheer dreams come true. She'll do whatever it takes to make sure there's a place for Riley on the squad...even if it means opening up a few spots for her.
Two years ago, Lifetime's "Cheer! Rally! Kill!" movie premiere marathon opened with The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders, which featured Denise Richards as the protagonist's concerned mother. Now, Lifetime's latest "Fear the Cheer" marathon similarly starts with a Denise Richards film. Though this time, she's playing a much more active role as a woman who will do anything to get her stepdaughter on the cheer team. While The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders was brimming with drama and teenage cattiness, Killer Cheer Mom is a more grounded slow-burner. We watch as Amanda's schemes get progressively more extreme and wonder what will happen when Riley figures out what her stepmother is up to. While it can't compare to the movie that opened Lifetime's previous cheerleader movie marathon, Killer Cheer Mom has a fun villain and likable main characters to keep its story's energy up.
Though to be honest, Killer Cheer Mom does start its routine with a few hard falls. After a weirdly executed and frankly unnecessary cold open, we're treated to an opening scene where the music nearly drowns out the dialogue. Jasmine Putmon also doesn't make the best first impression as Riley's friend Blaire, though her stilted delivery and Blaire's petty anti-cheer attitude don't last long enough to get aggravating. After that, the movie settles into a slow but steady pace as Amanda goes from running PTA bake sales to eliminating Riley's competition for a spot on the cheer squad. Denise Richards does a great job of portraying Amanda as a neurotic woman trying way too hard to be BFFs with her stepdaughter. Even before Amanda starts sabotaging a bunch of teenage girls, you'll understand why Riley is so resistant to Amanda's attempts at being friendly. Richards is just as good whenever Amanda drops the faux-niceties and reveals she's much more dangerous than she initially seemed--especially when we learn how Amanda's motivation goes beyond an obsession with making Riley happy or getting her stepdaughter to like her.
(One of Richards' surprise highlights of the movie is the first and only time in which Amanda really bonds with Riley. As Amanda opens up to Riley about her past, Richards takes on her character's emotions with unexpected power. It's an effectively moving scene that becomes memorable in a darker sense after all is revealed.)
It's a good thing Richards makes Amanda so fun to watch in action, as most of the trouble Amanda causes is of the minor league variety. At first, Amanda is little more than a reputation saboteur, framing the other cheerleaders to get them cut from the team. Thankfully, Amanda's methods never feel as repetitive as the villain antics from the previously reviewed Revenge Delivered and there's more time given to when Amanda ups her game to violent levels. Much of the third act is all about Riley wising up to Amanda's crimes and working to find evidence to expose her. It's a much-appreciated change of pace after the stretch of gradual plot boiling, culminating in a brief but rather cathartic climax and conclusion. It's also the part of the film where debut actress Courtney Fulk gives her best performance. She has a fair amount of shaky moments, but overall, Fulk gives a believable portrayal of a girl struggling to adjust to a lot of change. She later brings a lot of emotion to Riley's anguish as she's unfairly ostracized due to her stepmother's actions and endangered once she discovers Amanda's secret.
Fulk shares adorable chemistry with two of her co-stars: Holly J. Barrett (who plays cheer captain Chloe) and Jay Jay Warren (who plays Chloe's brother and Riley's love interest Cooper). Barrett makes Chloe an exceptionally sweet girl as she takes Riley under her wing and gives her wholehearted blessing to her relationship with Connor. The one scene Riley, Chloe, and Connor share together is especially cute. That combined with Chloe's Genre Savvy status (she's quick to recognize that her fellow cheerleaders are being framed and defends them to her jumping-to-conclusions coach) makes her an exceptional supporting character. Warren, meanwhile, is charming as lovable loner Cooper and his relationship with Riley develops nicely.
But unlike his sister, Cooper's likability takes a major hit in the third act that he never really recovers from. SPOILER ALERT Cooper and Riley may move past the incident, but it's still frustrating how Cooper is immediately convinced that Riley tried to kill Chloe based on the needlessly accusatory remarks of requisite useless Lifetime cop Detective Sanchez (played by Tia Texada). Worst yet is how Riley never confronts Cooper about his callous accusations and abandonment and Cooper never gives Riley a much-deserved apology. And with how quickly this conflict between Cooper and Riley is resolved, it's ultimately a story beat as pointless as it is irritating. Spoilers Over But Cooper has nothing on Riley's father when it comes to being an unlikable character. James Dillon spends the first half of the movie being an uninvolved annoying goof and the second half being an absolute moron quick to take Amanda's side over his daughter. Thomas Calabro's bouts of cringey acting don't do his character any favors.
As alluded to before, Riley's friend Blaire is a much better character once Jasmine Putmon finds her stride, with Blaire even taking after Chloe in developing a sense of Genre Savvy. Tristina Lee makes the most impact out of all the background cheerleaders as the cute and feisty Ariel while Jon Briddell does a decent job of fulfilling his Lifetime typecast. Much like how Principal Harris from Dying to Be a Cheerleader initially seemed to be a gruff but reasonable principal, Dr. Shaeffer at first seems to be a good therapist who just doesn't realize how unstable Amanda is. But later in the movie, Shaeffer proves himself to be self-centered enough to prioritize protecting his career over stopping a dangerous patient from hurting people. On a personal note, I couldn't help but find it odd that Mia Rose Frampton and Grace Patterson (two actresses who have played Lifetime protagonists in the past) appear here as window-dressing cheerleaders Tiana and Paige. It's not a fault against the movie; just something I took notice of as a long-time Lifetime viewer.
As the premiere movie of Lifetime's newest iteration of Fear the Cheer, Killer Cheer Mom gets the marathon off to a good start. While the Lifetimey mayhem is kept at a minimum and there's a few vexing characters to deal with, the entertaining/endearing main characters and the actors playing them keep the plot momentum going. Denise Richards is a definite highlight as the titular cheer mom, with her younger co-stars bringing some heart to all the chaos Amanda stirs up. So while it has a few missteps, Killer Cheer Mom is an otherwise stellar Lifetime thriller with lovable teen protagonists and a deliciously deranged villainess.
Score: 7.5 out of 10 goji berries.