If you went to high school in the U.S., you probably think you know everything you need to about cheerleading. But you’re also probably wrong.
There is so much more to the sport than stereotypes and teen movies suggest, and Netflix’s incredible docuseries “Cheer,” from the producers of the great “Last Chance U,” will change minds and maybe hearts about this uniquely American subculture.
Focused on the national champion team at a small-town Texas junior college, “Cheer” offers six riveting episodes that will leave you stunned by the athletic talent of the diverse group of young adults being thrown in the air and (hopefully) caught again. It might also leave you deeply concerned about the safety of sport and the future of the athletes highlighted.
The Navarro College cheer team practices in Netflix’s “Cheer.” (Photo: Netflix)
“Cheer” follows the coaches and cheerleaders at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, a tiny town with a tiny school that has more than a dozen national championship titles under its belt, mostly thanks to aggressive coach Monica Aldama, who built the program from the ground up.
Cheerleading is as all-consuming at Navarro as football might be at Big Ten universities: Students spend five or more hours a day training. “Cheer” spends most of its time with five of them: Lexi, Morgan, Gabi, LaDarius and Jerry.
It’s immediately clear that there’s so much more involved in cheerleading than rhyming chants and pompoms. The Navarro team’s athletic feats are akin to 2000’s “Bring it On,” although even that film couldn’t convey the strength, stamina and pain involved in “stunts,” “baskets,” “tumbling” and “pyramids.”
When the cheerleaders are just working out in a gym in athletic gear we might see runners or basketball players wear, the hyper-stylized “cheerleading” aesthetic is lost and the epic proportions of the sport come to light. You can see muscles ripple and hear grunts of effort and pain. When put in an arm-wrestling competition with other athletes, my money would be on the cheerleaders every time.
The team will also likely be a surprise to viewers. Often portrayed in pop culture as blonde, white, attractive girls, the students at Navarro come from a wide array of backgrounds. Several members are young men, whose strength is needed for all that throwing and catching, and many of these guys are gay men of color, often from low income or abusive backgrounds. They turn to cheerleading for escape and community, and they come to Navarro for a chance at a better life and a chance at winning.
Tumbler Lexi stretches in Netflix’s “Cheer.” (Photo: Netflix)
Far from being a clique of popular kids who bully others, the cheer team is inclusive, welcoming the five main students into the fold. Lexi has anger management problems and served time in jail; LaDarius survived sexual abuse; Jerry was homeless and lost his mother; Morgan was abandoned by both her father and mother; and Gabi, whose cheer career has turned her into a social media influencer, appears to be unwittingly used by her greedy parents. And yet they all find common ground “on mat,” the cheerleading parlance for being in the competition group.
But the moves and stunts required to be competitive at a national level are startlingly dangerous, and the number of injuries caught on film in just one school year is horrifying. While Coach Aldama appears a maternal figure to these kids, she also pushes them to risk their bodies for her goal, demanding they train while injured: It’s pain for glory. It’s disturbing to watch and prompts questions about just how many rules and regulations govern the sport and how many more there should be.
The athletes speak disdainfully of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders or the Laker Girls, noting that so-called professional cheerleading is not nearly as difficult or athletic. For the Navarro kids, competing at the national competition in Daytona Beach, Florida, is as good as life gets.
Director Greg Whiteley crafts the narrative in a way that makes the audience feel intimately involved in their lives. When the cheerleading championships are over, the more pressing concern is what’s next for the students who have spent most of their time and energy pursuing a sport with few job prospects.
More concerning than athletes at a traditional university who don’t pursue pro sports, the documentary shows the Navarro students at a loss for next steps after cheering is over, armed only with associates degrees from the junior college. Some move on to four-year schools or get jobs right away, but when “Cheer” rolls its final credits, some are still lacking a path.
A male cheerleader treats his injuries in an ice bath in Netflix’s documentary, “Cheer.” (Photo: Netflix)
“Cheer” lures viewers in with the traditional hallmarks of a sports story: A group of scrappy underdogs, a rousing coach and stunning displays of physical prowess. But what makes it worth devouring in a single sitting is how much deeper it goes than just celebrating athletics. It asks questions about who deserves to be “on mat,” and how much pain is worth a trophy that, in the end, doesn’t mean much of anything.
It may not be much to cheer about, but it might make you rethink pep rallies.
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