The new Netflix documentary series “Cheer”, set in Corsicana, Texas, is one of 2020’s breakout hits. The show follows the cheerleading squad at Navarro College, a 9000-student junior college, as they prepare for the 2019 NCA Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. For years, cheerleaders from all around the country have come to Corsicana for a chance to compete on Navarro’s Cheer team. Thanks to Monica Aldama, a Corsicana native, former cheerleader and now famed coach, the Navarro Cheer team had, up to 2019, won thirteen national titles in the past two decades.
The series has been lauded because it subverts the notion of cheerleading as sideline entertainment and provides a convincing portrait of the reality of the sport. The team’s routine is an incredible feat of athleticism, consisting of precisely choreographed tumbling and gravity-defying stunts. A pyramid formation, for instance, involves several cheerleaders flying across the air and landing on the shoulders of their teammates. “They are the toughest athletes I’ve ever filmed”, says “Cheer” director Greg Whiteley. Instead of capitalizing on cheerleading stereotypes, the show unflinchingly depicts the sport’s harsh realities, from the grueling practices and injuries involved to the fact that there are no professional opportunities in competitive cheerleading post-college.
The compelling characters on the Navarro Cheer team hook in viewers. Throughout its six episodes, the show documents several team members’ backstories. Many of the squad members come from profoundly troubled backgrounds, and cheerleading has been a lifeline out of their difficult childhoods. Take loving, positive Jerry Harris, who has always turned to cheer as his happy place. In high school, when he lost his mother, he became homeless and moved in with a sympathetic, cheer-centric family. Free-spirited Lexi Brumback, a vaping raver with a history of violence, reckons she would be in jail if she hadn’t found cheerleading. There’s La’Darius Marshall, an openly gay cheerleader from Florida, who has survived sexual abuse and intense bullying. Soft-spoken Morgan Simianer from rural Wyoming was once abandoned by her parents to live alone in a trailer. Then there’s Gabi Butler, a famous influencer in the cheerleading world who faces overwhelming pressure from her parents to maintain an image of perfection.
Although coach Aldama is tough with disciplining her team, each squad member has her unshakeable support. The team sees Aldama as a surrogate mother whose support extends beyond cheerleading. For instance, when Lexi has nude photos leaked to social media by someone she used to fight with in her past, Aldama is the one to help her report it to the police. Because Aldama sincerely cares for everyone on the team, her team’s devotion is unwavering. Morgan becomes emotional when speaking of Aldama: “She saw potential in me, and it felt like it was just the first time someone noticed me.” It’s no wonder when Aldama asks her to pull a risky stunt, Morgan doesn’t hesitate for a second. “If Monica believes in me enough to put me in, then I should be able to trust myself,” Morgan says.
The notion of trust is a recurring theme in the show; if you’re catapulted 30 feet into the air, you have to trust that someone will be there to catch you. Although the Navarro Cheerleaders mostly compete with each other, vying for a position “on mat,” meaning they’ll get to compete at Daytona, they cheer each other on during every practice. There is legitimately no animosity between team members, which may come as a surprise for a sports drama series. In a recent interview, director Whiteley explains his reaction to observing the team’s strong bonds: “There was something about it that… I thought, ‘Oh, I’m really envious of these guys.’ ….I think it’s pretty easy to go through life without having that kind of bond with anyone outside of maybe your family.” As a viewer, it’s heartwarming to watch the squad members consistently treat each other with such kindness, love and respect.
“Cheer” lures viewers in with the elements of a gripping sports drama: scrappy underdogs, an imperious head coach and aweing displays of physical prowess. But the show is worth the watch because it deftly blends sports drama with heartfelt, emotional moments in a way that makes viewers feel intimately invested in the kids’ lives. By the time the team reaches their final performance in Daytona, viewers find themselves not only rooting for these cheerleaders’ success at their final competition but also at whatever endeavors they set their minds to after cheerleading ends.