Buff guys tossing fit gals high into the air so they can contort themselves in a myriad of twists and turns before plummeting downward toward arms (hopefully) waiting to catch them: Netflix’s documentary series Cheer, directed by Greg Whiteley, is a deep-dive into the insular world of high-level competitive cheerleading. And it's a blast.
Navarro College, a community college located in Corsicana, Texas (population around 25,000), is home to one of America’s best cheerleading teams. Cheer follows the Navarro team leading up to the national competition in Daytona, Florida. The six-episode series is a look at mastery, struggle and intensity.
Cheer is effectively a six-hour sports movie where the outcome is determined in real time. Traditional sports stories can be extremely formulaic; the underdog works hard and inevitably beats the top dog. But Navarro Cheer isn’t an underdog. They’re the Goliath. Under the leadership of the team’s coach, Monica Aldama, Navarro has won 13 national championships, including one the year before the show takes place. They are the best. It’s as simple as that.
Cheerleading is an incredibly technical sport. People are tossed dangerously high into the air. Along with intricate gymnastics-like floor routines, crazy acrobatics take place on the top of a pyramid of people. Cheer teams spend their entire season preparing for a 2 minute and 15 second performance. Every moment has to be perfect.
A lot of Cheer’s entertainment comes from watching masters excel in their craft. It's mastery porn. Every member of the Navarro team is so fully committed to winning and performing perfectly that the excitement rubs off on the viewer. There are such ridiculously high stakes placed on the team by their community, school and themselves: it’s win it all or bust.
Even though Navarro is, as a collective, a powerhouse, the same cannot be said for all of the individuals on the team. Cheer explores the individual stories of many of the 40 team members and coaching staff. Specifically, the show dives deep into the stories of Monica, the team’s head coach, and five of the student athletes. Their stories focus on overcoming traumas, such as abuse, loss of loved ones, poverty, homophobia, controlling parents, absent parents, insecurity, online sexual harassment, suicidal ideation and much more.
A central force in overcoming these struggles is Monica. She is intense. Her husband compares her to legendary Patriot's coach Bill Belichick, and her 13 championships speak for themselves. She expects a lot from her competitors. Arguably, she expects too much. They must live their lives around cheerleading, at least in the buildup to Daytona. When organizing the routine, Monica treats her team as chess pieces. She openly strategizes with her coaching assistants, blatantly stating that some members of the team are bad at certain skills. It’s rare to hear anyone in sports be that bold. Monica’s story makes it evident how she has found such success.
Monica also loves the team. She is extremely maternal, even calling the competitors “her kids.”
And they love her too. Much of the team lacks direction in life. Some aren’t doing well in school and rely on cheerleading to succeed. One competitor even says if she wasn’t at Navarro, she’d be in jail. Monica wants her “kids” to have great lives, and she uses cheerleading to help them get there. Some members of the team haven’t had much expected of them before. Monica expects everything from them.
Watching Navarro compete in nationals is like watching your favorite sports team in the championship game‒ even people who aren’t sports fans will come to care for the individual members of the team. It’s impossible not to be nervous watching the show. And it’s real. The documentary format heightens the stakes because Navarro can really lose.
Cheer does not shy away from showing injuries, and there are a lot. Cheerleading is extremely dangerous, and seeing injuries happen in real-time with all the context and aftermath is captivating and horrifying. Whenever there is footage of Navarro practicing or performing their routine (which is practically a third of the show) there is a tangible fear that someone will get hurt. This fear is heightened because even when the moves are done correctly, they look excruciating!
All of the practice builds toward the national competition. This predetermined climax to the story gives Cheer a more definitive arc than some documentaries that have to discover the story as they go. The countdown of the days remaining until Daytona that is shown every episode increases the intensity.
Cheer’s widespread popularity will hopefully bring more attention and creativity to the documentary genre, which has a reputation of being dull. It is such a fun watch, though it can be a little overdramatic. It’s not fully “objective” storytelling (whatever that means), but TV’s a business, and Cheer is the next generation of sports storytelling: real stories of underdogs uniting to dominate.
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