Anyone who still believes cheerleading isn’t a sport will have that illusion quickly dispelled by Cheer, a winning portrait of young men and women coping with tragedies, banding together as a clan, and meeting intense expectations to reach the pinnacle of their highly competitive field. At once a multifaceted character study, nail-bating athletic drama and poignant saga about overcoming adversity and achieving perfection, Netflix’s six-part docuseries (available now) is the reality TV affair binge-watchers have been craving.
To win a national cheerleading championship requires 2 ½ minutes of routine flawlessness at the annual Daytona competition. None of the teams facing off for that crown are as illustrious as the one hailing from Corsicana, Texas’ Navarro College, a small community school that’s become a cheerleading titan. Its rise to prominence has come under the stewardship of coach Monica Aldama, a Texas native who set aside a business career (she has an MBA and once dreamed of relocating to NYC) in order to shape Navarro’s program into a powerhouse. With 14 national championships—and five grand national championships—under her belt, Monica’s résumé speaks for itself. It’s no wonder her nickname is “the Queen.”
Monica runs a predictably tight ship, and on the basis of her reputation, she recruits the best of the best. The school’s quest for a 2018-2019 title is the nominal focus of Cheer, but director Greg Whiteley, employing the template first pioneered by Jeffrey Blitz’s influential 2002 documentary Spellbound, balances that suspenseful pursuit with in-depth investigations into the lives of Navarro’s cheerleaders. It’s a familiar structure, but one that’s bolstered by a six-hour runtime that allows Whiteley to not only dig into his various subjects’ backstories and hang-ups, but to intimately relate them to their current efforts to solidify their spots on the 40-person Navarro crew and, more important still, to make it to the coveted group of 20 that perform on the mat in Daytona.
It takes mere minutes inside Monica’s gym for Cheer to decimate stereotypes about cheerleaders as just sideline decorations designed to rile up the crowd; while a manicured appearance is certainly part of the final package when being judged at Daytona, these men and women are immensely skilled athletes determined to risk life and limb for a roster spot. Injuries are a routine facet of this stock and trade, be it concussions, shin splints, sprained ligaments, and broken bones. So too is an incredible amount of pressure. With only 60-plus days to hone a complex and often-death defying stage routine, everyone vying for a select few starting slots, and Navarro’s daunting legacy looming over their heads, these cheerleaders have little room for error—a situation compounded by the fact that, for many of them, sports is only one of the things with which they’re grappling.
Cheer is, fundamentally, the story of damaged kids finding a stable home, and often achieving healing and transformation, through cheerleading, with Monica as their stern but loving den mother. Certainly, trauma abounds for these stunters, tumblers, and flyers. Flamboyant La’Darius Marshall is dealing with anger born from a childhood of homophobic and sexual abuse at the hands of brothers and acquaintances. Promising Morgan Simianer is looking for security and acceptance after being abandoned to live alone in a trailer by her father (she was eventually rescued by her grandparents). Wild child Lexi Brumback is talented and fearless, but perpetually on the precipice of falling back into the self-destructive behavior that got her into trouble at home. And Jerry Harris, the team’s boisterous heart and soul, is desperate to achieve his lifelong dreams and, in the process, validate the tireless support of his late mom, who died of cancer.
Such vibrant personalities enliven Cheer, which illustrates the means by which Monica’s program affords structure, discipline, camaraderie, acceptance, and love—the very things these on-the-edge kids so desperately need. There’s a legitimate sense of closeness between Navarro’s competitors, even those contending for the same position. That the school has become a haven for the cream of the cheerleading crop is a testament to Monica’s ability to create an environment that welcomes everyone, including those with darker skin or same-sex preferences—a not-inconsiderable state of affairs in Texas, where conservative “values” run deep.
Cheer boasts underdog-makes-good tales, playing-through-pain subplots, and narrative threads about the weight of expectations, which is doubly true for Gabi Butler, an Instagram-famous superstar endeavoring to live up to her own, and Navarro’s, reputation. The fact that these men and women’s competitive careers will climax at Daytona (there are no professional ranks to move onto afterwards) only heightens the tension. All in all, Whiteley’s docuseries is a gripping inside peek at the world of top-flight athletics, where calamities are always one misstep away, physical agony and emotional devastation are ever-present, and the process of forming a cohesive team is complicated by the thorny hang-ups that everyone brings to the table.
To its credit, Cheer spends almost no time on Navarro’s main competition (neighboring Trinity Valley); instead, it shrewdly keeps its focus on Monica and her brood, and the many ways in which uniting to achieve a common goal serves as a vehicle for self-improvement. In doing so, it reveals cheerleading to be a safe haven for gay athletes otherwise ostracized from mainstream sports, as well as for all kids who don’t believe in themselves, or have been left behind or alone, or made to feel worthless for not conforming to some predetermined mold set by friends, relatives, or society at large. As practiced by Monica, whose demanding toughness is intimately wedded to her compassion and loyalty, embracing cheerleading is these individuals’ first step toward transcending their problems.
The question, therefore, is ultimately not whether Navarro will bring home a championship (although expect some heart palpitations during the finale) but whether the kids will surmount their fears, doubts, and distress by drawing strength from one another. Cheer prizes its sports outcome far less than it does its human ones, all while celebrating the resilience of its young competitors and the beloved coach dedicated to giving them a chance to be the very best version of themselves—an opportunity that inspires genuine love, and turns Navarro’s cheerleading squad into the truest sort of family.