Lifetime Review: 'The Wrong Cheerleader'
An excellent cast and plot allow this teen drama to authentically tackle relationship abuse with emotional sincerity.
After spending much of high school buried in her books, senior Becky Snyder (Cristine Prosperi) is convinced by her best friend Jen (Kalen Bull) to try out for the cheerleading squad. To Becky's joy, she earns a spot on the team, which also earns her the attention of new student Rob Brous (David Meza). Handsome and charming, Becky falls head over heels for Rob as he becomes her first boyfriend.
But as Becky and Rob's relationship deepens, Jen and her boyfriend Chris (Shayne Davis) begin to notice a dark side to Rob. His affection for Becky becomes possessive, with Rob getting violent with anyone he perceives as a threat to their relationship. While Becky initially dismisses her friends' attempted warnings, she too comes to see the side of Rob that he once tried to hide from her—and her fairytale romance spirals into a nightmare. With the help of her friends and her mother Eliza (Lesli Kay), Becky must fight to escape her once-perfect boyfriend's clutches before his violent obsession destroys her.
The Wrong Cheerleader serves as a convergence of two big Lifetime events: the latest entry in Lifetime's "Cheer, Rally, Kill" movie lineup, and the latest installment in David DeCoteau's Wrong series. While much of DeCoteau's Wrong saga have consisted of films that are as Lifetime-ian as they come, The Wrong Cheerleader clearly aims to be more than just another teenage obsession thriller. Tone-wise, The Wrong Cheerleader reminds me of last year's The Wrong Friend, both being DeCoteau-directed Lifetime films that aim to tackle real-world issues. While Wrong Friend explored slut-shaming and sexual assault, Wrong Cheerleader's topic of conversation is relationship abuse.
Penned by Lifetime regulars Jeffrey Schenck and Peter Sullivan, The Wrong Cheerleader makes the wise decision to keep the film grounded in a sense of reality rather than play Rob's instability for drama, which might've resulted in a clouded message. The story also allows for Rob's unstable and violent behavior to build up over time rather than have him go from sweet boyfriend to violent abuser in 180 motion, which not only serves as a benefit to Rob's character, but makes Becky's defenses of Rob come off as understandable. The slow build of Rob's dark side not only makes for an intense watch, but allows for the dramatic conclusion to have a lot more bite thanks to the slow build-up that precedes it.
The cast of The Wrong Cheerleader, however, is who is responsible for the emotion that becomes the driving force behind the film. Having previously also been the victim of an abusive relationship in Christine Conradt's Murdered at 17, Cristine Prosperi brings as much strength to her portrayal of Becky Snyder as she did Brooke Emerson. While her moments of defending Rob's violent behavior and lashing out at her concerned friends will definitely have some viewers frustrated, Prosperi keeps Becky sympathetic by showing that Becky's romantic inexperience and shyness has left her susceptible to Rob's manipulations—and more than a little defensive over her first relationship. Prosperi continues playing Becky with palpable emotion as Rob's true nature comes to the surface, with Becky alternating between standing up to Rob and his manipulations and holding on to the fleeting hope that the guy she fell in love with is still there. It's an emotional dynamic that Prosperi handles nicely, and one that unfortunately rings true for real-life victims of abuse.
In a refreshing twist on the Lifetime "Abusive Boyfriend" storyline, Rob is not portrayed as a straight-forward violent monster, thanks in part to David Meza's performance. While his introductory scene had Rob briefly reaching a Javier-from-Deadly Excursion level of laying it on too thick, Meza redeems himself by giving a faceted view of Rob. As Rob's violent side begins to come to light, we also see emotional scenes of Rob's apparent remorse for his violent outbursts in addition to glimpses of Rob's dysfunctional home life. Thanks to Meza's powerful performance, the viewer is much like Becky and is left wondering about his words of regret: are any of them real, or is it all an act to manipulate Becky back into his arms? While the answer becomes clear by the climax, this is a question that brings emotional depth to a character who could've replicated John Link's cookie cutter qualities.
Kalen Bull and Shayne Davis continued the surprises by becoming strong "Heroine's Friends" characters, as well as proactive audience surrogates as they are both quick to pick up on Rob's true nature. Lesli Kay is thankfully nowhere near as grating as she was in The Wrong Crush (which I will be talking about here fairly soon) as Becky's mother Eliza, sharing strong chemistry with Prosperi and having a particularly heartfelt moment when she opens up about her own struggles with domestic abuse. However, for whatever reason, Eliza's initial moments have her painted as an overly controlling Tiger Mom who dismisses Becky's desire to join cheer and attempts to use her getting a B on an assignment as an excuse to say she's letting cheer distract her from her schoolwork. It's a characterization choice that ultimately feels superfluous to the story, given how Eliza is otherwise a loving and supportive mother who becomes a fierce champion for her daughter's safety.
As typical for DeCoteau's "Wrong" films, Vivica A. Fox appears as Becky's stern but well-meaning cheer coach Coach Flynn, with Fox striking the right balance between stern authority figure and supportive and compassionate maternal figure; a balance she previously achieved as Ms. Price in The Wrong Stepmother. And same as Wrong Stepmother, Wrong Cheerleader allows Coach Flynn to deliver a cathartic moment during the film's exceptionally intense climax, helped by the film allowing Fox a much more natural Title Drop moment than in Wrong Stepmother.
As the latest in DeCoteau's "Wrong" saga, The Wrong Cheerleader is a welcome change of pace for the series, focusing more on the true-to-life story rather than solely playing it for Lifetime-ian drama. With an excellently written story, emotionally developed characters, and a structure that allows organic tension to develop without relying on histrionics, The Wrong Cheerleader stands out as a particularly strong entry into DeCoteau's series and is a film I would even recommend parents watch with their teens if they want to spark an important discussion.
Score: 9 out of 10 spiked punch bowls.