Television hasn't been especially kind to cheerleaders, usually portraying them as bullies, beyotches and brazen killers. The worst of it is always somehow loosely based on a true-crime tale, often originating somewhere in Texas. How long must these beautiful and popular people endure the effects of stereotype? And could the sympathy violins get any tinier?
This is where director Greg Whiteley's fascinating - and often surprisingly moving - documentary series "Cheer" (now streaming on Netflix) tries to meet us: right at the line between cliche and reality, as he and his cameras follow a season in the life of the scrappy but consistently winning cheer program at Navarro, a 9,000-student community college in Corsicana, Texas, about 50 miles south of Dallas.
Navarro's cheer team - the Bulldogs - has won the national title in its division more than a dozen times over the past two decades, thanks to the fierce (and occasionally fearsome) dedication of its coach, Monica Aldama.
"They're the best of the best of the best," says Billy Smith, a competition organizer.
Whiteley, whose previous work includes "Last Chance U" and "Mitt," smartly begins by trying to determine what glories cheerleading still brings in today's America, beyond the fantasies of high school football games and clique status.
Random interviews on Corsicana's main streets reveal little if any awareness among the locals of Navarro's cheer acclaim (the town is best known for its mail-order fruitcake factory) or that cheerleading long ago became its own sport with scholarship athletes. Their biggest fan is the town's spirited police chief, but beyond that, even the college's Wikipedia page, at this writing, omits its cheer team's successes.
There's a depressing insularity to it - a very specific bubble of determination within the larger, protectively impermeable bubble that is Texas itself. "Cheer" is tasked with giving us a brief yet jaw-dropping primer on cheer, both as a loosely affiliated collegiate sport and as a billion-dollar industry. We also learn of its daunting reputation for injury - twisted ankles, broken bones, bruised ribs, concussions and worse. More hurtful, perhaps, is the final heartbreak: After the team members graduate, there's nowhere to go, nothing left to cheer for.
In addition to their obligatory, and pretty much folkloric, presence at Navarro's football games and other sporting events, the cheer team spends months preparing the routine it will take to the national championships in Florida - a single shot at winning that lasts a mere 2 minutes and 15 seconds.
The routine is a precisely choreographed chaos of tumbling, human pyramid formations and, most notably, the flying stunts in which the team's muscle-bound young men hurl the tiniest, bravest young women into the air and catch them. The physical demands speak for themselves; sadly, the cheer team members, Aldama and her assistant coaches still feel that they must explain their sport to persistent naysayers.
These young people, however, are made of tough stuff. Lexi Brumback, an unlikely recruit with silvery-blond raver hair, reckons she'd already be in jail if she hadn't found cheer. Morgan Simianer, a 96-pound flier, came to Texas to audition for Coach Aldama from her grandparents' farm in Wyoming, where she felt alienated and alone after her father all but abandoned her for his new wife and family.
La'Darius Marshall, a vibrant and strong team member who excels at stunts and tumbling, believes cheer is helping him break down some of the resentment he acquired during a childhood defined by being black and poor in Florida.
Jerry Harris, Marshall's roommate and friend, had an equally tumultuous upbringing - he moved in with a sympathetic, cheer-centric suburban family after his mother died. There's plenty for Jerry to be angry about, yet he is Navarro's most relentlessly upbeat sunbeam, a true cheerleader who works twice as hard to win a spot "on mat," the term for the 20 cheerleaders Aldama will select to compete at nationals.
Both Marshall and Harris give us a glimpse at a relatively newfound openness in the cheer milieu, where gay or otherwise nonconforming young men no longer feel ashamed about themselves or their sport. Aldama, who considers herself a conservative Christian, is a fierce protector of their rights to be who they are. "I won't budge," she says. "These are my kids and I'll fight tooth-and-nail for them."
Incomplete without a shimmering star, "Cheer" zeroes in on team member Gabi Hunter, whose Instagram fame in the cheerleading world has grown so intense that her parents have devoted their lives to managing and marketing her brand. Hunter, however, provides a refreshingly down-to-earth insight into the sport; she believes in it passionately, yet rolls her eyes at its constant demands.
"Cheer" quickly and effortlessly becomes all-consuming for the viewer. Whiteley superbly structures the story through six episodes to heighten the anxiety as the competition nears.
The only disappointment is hardly the filmmakers' fault. A billion-dollar company called Varsity greedily guards all broadcast and filming rights, which prevents "Cheer's" crew from chronicling the series' big moment, as Navarro competes in Daytona Beach, Florida, for the 2019 trophy.
Whiteley instead relies on phone footage of the event, which works to its climatic advantage: It's as jittery and frantic as your nerves will be when you watch it, and I could only think of one thing as those young adults came bounding onto the mat and began to defy gravity: God bless 'em.
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"Cheer" (six episodes) is now streaming on Netflix.