Published on April 23rd, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Pep Squad 
Summary: A ballsy, brash, completely off the rails flick about high school in a small town. Some scenes are uncomfortable post-Columbine but 'Pep Squad' does it all with a wink.
R | 94 min.
Director & Screenplay: Steve Balderson
Starring: Brooke Balderson, Jennifer Dreiling, Amy Kelly
Studio: Dikenga Films | Distribution: Asylum, Troma Entertainment
When I was a sophomore at good old Edgewood High School in Trenton, Ohio (population: 8,746), I was forced to wipe scuff marks off the floor of our new gym because a friend and I were caught shooting hoops in “unapproved” shoes. In writer-director Steve Balderson’s debut feature Pep Squad, a nearly identical scene plays out as a boy is down on his hands and knees using a sponge to wipe off the Oak Hill High School floor decal he accidentally stepped on.
Thus was the petty embarrassment of teen life in a small midwestern town.
The characters of this wild film carry out their formative years in Kansas, the home state of Balderson, where Pep Squad was shot. The “high school movie” genre is usually rife with clichés and derivative storylines of separating oneself from your brainless peers. Pep Squad shares more in common with Kill Bill than She’s All That, though, for a ride that’s mostly off the rails.
The pre-credits sequence of Pep Squad is among my all-time favorites, making me actually start the film over again after the opening titles hit because it jarred me awake!
We’re introduced to the movie’s driving force, Cherry (Brooke Balderson), who completely owns a contemporary on the subject of who has the most pictures in the Oak Hill yearbook. The sequence starts quietly, building the small budget (estimated at $500,000) project’s credibility with impressive shots and costumes. We get the full breadth of Cherry’s stature in a dolly shot that seems to be running away from her as she leaves the yearbook handout table, a girl offscreen yells, “Cherry, can I have your autograph?” Through ruby lips, our girl replies, “Drop dead!” Cue the marching band drum corps theme.
Brooke Balderson, Steve’s little sister, is an entertaining actress to watch, carrying swagger to spare in this performance. The character of Cherry loses much of her luster as the film wears on though, turning from an antihero to a straight-up villain by the end. Instead, our protagonist is Beth (Jennifer Dreilling), a much less dynamic and frankly, more stock character. Beth is a quiet girl, frustrated with everything in her life including her divorcing parents and the stifling atmosphere at school. Along with friends Julie (Summer Makovkin) and Scott (Adrian Pujol), she starts a silent revolution inside the school, aiming their sights at bringing down Oak Hill’s perverted principal.
The plot ends up as a total mess, as do the trio’s plans, making my attentiveness suffer in the second and third acts. A side plot involves Cherry attempting to pick off the school’s eight prom queen nominees one by one after she was left off the list. A funny scene early on sees the nominees being announced during a gymnasium assembly. The principal calls the girls’ names, proclaiming over the microphone, “For these eight girls, a dream has become reality.” A sad, sad truth in small town high school.
Pep Squad is a campy, over the top picture where graphic violence is played for laughs. It’s easy to forget this film was made a year prior to the Columbine massacre, but one sequence where Cherry casually unloads on her classmates with a small arsenal of guns feels in poor taste after 15 years of annual school shootings in the news. Balderson’s film gets away with action like this though because everything in it is exaggerated for maximum shock value–it’s fitting that Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment later acquired the film’s distribution rights.
Much credit for this film’s success deserves with cinematographer Rhet Bear who shot the picture like a multi-million dollar production. Bear uses a huge variety of techniques and angles to keep Pep Squad looking fresh. Lots of close-ups are used, whip pans to keep you off balance, POV to put us in the characters’ heads and rolling, wide angle shots of the Kansas farmland surrounding Oak Hills. Bear would go on to work with comedian Sarah Silverman, as director of photography on her Comedy Central series The Sarah Silverman Program.
This film reminded me a lot of Alexander Payne’s 1999 black comedy Election, filmed around the same time. Both pictures use the backdrop of a midwestern high school to tell a story involving lecherous adults preying on teenagers, and vice versa. There’s even a Tracy Flick-esque character in Pep Squad, brought to life in the movie’s best performance. The annoyingly bubbly Terra Simpson (Amy Kelly), is that girl we all knew in school who’s trying hard to impress the adults while her classmates just want to entertain one another. Kelly gives a legitimately strong turn as Terra, managing to get on our nerves at every turn.
My favorite character of Pep Squad‘s motley bunch is Debbie (Seraphine Naeymi), the drunken cheerleading captain who’s way too young to be this burned out. She’s the kind of cool, disillusioned chick that drove me nuts in high school. Her best moment comes at the climactic prom scene–another high school picture cliché–when she’s mentioned again as a nominee for queen. Speaking to nobody in particular following her name being called, she slurs, “That’s my name, it’s beautiful! If you don’t like it you can kiss my ass. I’m drunk!”
It’s best not to get bogged down in logic while watching Pep Squad. Don’t worry about how teens are able to openly drink shots at a local bar, why Candy sees no legal action after blatantly running over a classmate in the school’s parking lot or the deeper meaning behind “America the Beautiful” being used under a creepy montage of sex and gore. Pep Squad tells a pitch black story in an original tone and I’d much rather watch it than most of the cookie-cutter crap in this sub-genre.