A gripping docuseries about the gruelling sport of cheerleading reveals its subjects’ lives with finely drawn seriousness. By Sarah Krasnostein.
The small city of Corsicana in Texas is known for two things: its fruitcake factory and its cheerleaders. Since 2000, Navarro College – a community college whose main campus is in Corsicana – has won 14 national cheerleading championships and now attracts the country’s best athletes in that sport. This is how its Bulldogs cheer team captured the attention of director Greg Whitely (Last Chance U) and in 2020 became the subject of the six-part Netflix docuseries Cheer. A contentious second season was released this year.
Season one homed in on five members of the 40-strong squad and their coach, Monica Aldama, as they trained for the annual National Cheerleading Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. Like her finest athletes, Aldama’s defining quality is the intensity of her focus. A former college cheerleader, she graduated from Corsicana High School, earning a degree in finance and an MBA before returning like a salmon to her home town to raise her family. This is how she stepped into the unlikely role of Navarro cheerleading coach in 2000, created its cheer team and consistently led it to national domination over the following two decades.
Born in the suspiciously shadowless Victorian garden of mid-century middle America, cheerleading has evolved from the monocultural boosterism that many of the uninitiated still identify it with into a much more complex, and diversely populated, competitive acrobatic sport. In terms of strength required, bones broken and pain endured, it is equal to or greater than sports traditionally accorded more respect. Its taxonomy includes flyers (the hoisted), bases (the hoisters) and spotters (more hoisters), as well as tumblers and dancers. They share superstitions, fears, language and a penchant for audacious performance-day coiffure.
Over the training season, they gradually build stamina together – raising each other into pyramids, catching each other in human cradles and offering inspiration or solace as required in the form of “mat talk” (“We can! We will! We must!”) until they are greater than the sum of their parts. Only half of the team will “make mat” – that is, be chosen for a place in the competitive line-up. Everyone, however, is required to show up and focus because, even though they are intent on practising so many times they can’t get it wrong, “it’s cheerleading, and anything can happen”. And while many of them are there for the love of the sport, for others their ability to perform a flawless backflip with a 360-degree spin is their only option out of poverty or abuse into social mobility and connection in today’s American dystopia.
The best factual storytelling reveals what’s hiding in plain sight: “everyday” people, fully formed umwelts, wisdom for daily living. With a level of access that would make Frederick Wiseman or Werner Herzog envious, in season one Whitely zoomed in on squad members La’Darius Marshall, Lexi Brumback, Jerry Harris, Morgan Simianer and Gabi Butler. All come from adversity, trauma or parents who would be at home in a Roald Dahl book. And each is a sort of alchemist, transmuting those base materials into purpose and power. “If I wouldn’t of come here,” Lexi explains to camera, “I’d be sitting in a jail cell right now.”
Once you get a sense of their personal histories and interior lives, watching Morgan or Lexi or La’Darius dominate gravity to launch themselves skywards with shocking speed and precision evokes spine-tingling awe – the strain of terrified reverence before a higher power that better writers have failed to define but which is referred to as the numinous or mysterium tremendum. Locked in a self-punishing, compulsive quest for perfection, their mat talk was most redemptive when it cleared space for its impossibility.
Season one had the gift of a simple through line. Like Aldama and her team, the camera was focused single-mindedly on the squad as it trained for the championships, “Daytona” being referred to with Guffman-esque frequency and veneration. Despite their weapons-grade smiles, none of the central athletes or those who orbited them like lesser planets were camera-ready, in the sense of being preoccupied with what sociologists refer to as “impression management”.
Looming poetically over everything is the knowledge of inbuilt obsolescence. Unlike college basketballers or footballers, who have the dangling carrot of lucrative professional athletic careers on graduation, the two minute and 15 second opportunity to win at Daytona is the pinnacle of college cheerleading. Regardless of whether Navarro won or lost, the larger question asked by the series was whether their all-pervasive commitment to training had prepared these young people to embrace a life without it. When something has been everything, what comes next?
Covid-19 came next, but that’s not the real story of the second season. If following each year’s new Navarro squad on their road to the national championships seemed like a fool-proof reality format, the extreme popularity of the first season ensured things weren’t so simple. In season two, the circle of the camera’s concern is extended to include Navarro’s long-time rivals – the Cardinals from Trinity Valley Community College, 60 kilometres down the road in Athens, Texas. Led by coach Vontae Johnson and his sidekick Khris Franklin, the talent of Trinity’s stalwarts and new intake – including Angel Rice, the “Simone Biles of Cheerleading” – is astonishing, obvious even to the laywoman. Trinity has something to prove, while Navarro has something to protect – and profit from. The game has changed and it turns out there are worse things for team building than Covid restrictions.
When season two opens, Navarro is flying too close to the sun and their wings are starting to melt. Unwavering focus was their superpower, now distraction rules the day. This is the first reason why season two is extraordinarily compelling. The camera has committed the cardinal but sometimes unavoidable sin of significantly changing the process it intended to document.
Navarro’s athletes – familiar faces and new ones – and coach Aldama have had their attention diverted by everything from paid Instagram partnerships to hugging Oprah to Dancing with the Stars. This perhaps accounts for the otherwise glossed-over return of Gabi and La’Darius from season one, who would’ve been better off striding into the horizon to embrace their new lives than returning to their college gymnasium. And it throws into question Aldama’s integrity, the tough love and good counsel she had previously demonstrated in guiding her wounded students’ way in the world.
This unfolding of character over time is the second thing that makes the new season so compelling. Factual or fictional, the finest storytelling gives us characters that are believable – that is, meaningfully consistent but realistically fallible in their ability to surprise and disappoint us. Character has a luxuriant thickness when duration is allowed to become an aspect of the work.
For this reason, viewers have the chance to become deeply invested in the central question of whether Navarro’s team will fly or fall under their new conditions. And that investment also means there is a depth to the devastation caused by news of criminal charges for sexual offending against a much-loved cheerleader from season one. Accepting that their gaze has ineluctably changed the milieu it sought to accurately capture, Whitely and Cheer’s producers made the choice to shine their spotlight on some of the victim-survivors – also cheerleaders – in a way that deals with the darkness of the sport’s closed ranks while making them a safer place to be.
Some criticism of the second series has compared it unfavourably with the first, intimating it is structurally entropic and unnecessarily complicated. I disagree. While the final, extended episodes are some of the most propulsive storytelling I have seen on television, the greatness of this series is a subtler matter.
In the space it creates to accommodate and contextualise the complexities of human behaviour, it offers a curative to the caricatures – not only those of reality television but dominant narratives about influencers, athletes, corporate life and families – that are to some degree culpable for the kneejerk shock and disbelief when our most lovable “characters” turn out to be bad actors. In the Herzogian seriousness it accords its subjects’ inner and outer lives – in the soaring metaphors and classical tragedies it sees there – season two of Cheer lands its own acrobatic feat of sustaining a finely observed narrative.
Cheer seasons one and two are streaming on Netflix.
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, March 8-12
VISUAL ART Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, March 11–August 29
FESTIVAL Port Fairy Folk Festival
Port Fairy, Victoria, March 11-14
CULTURE All About Women
Sydney Opera House, March 12-13
Botanic Park, Adelaide, March 11-14
MUSIC Nine Lives Festival
The Tivoli and surrounds, Brisbane, until March 5
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Good cheer".
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