More than hair bows and big smiles.
Streaming on Netflix | 2020 | TV-MA | 6 Episodes
Genre: Docuseries. Why We Watched: I was never a cheerleader, but I was always fascinated by competitive cheerleading. A few of my friends in high school were on the team, and I remember being in awe of their big bruises and strong muscles. When I saw this docuseries pop up on Netflix, watching it was a no-brainer. And our What-To-Watch group chat quickly blew up as we all binged.*
You Might Also Like: Cheer has a similar vibe as Last Chance U, director Greg Whitely's prior Netflix 2016–present sports series. The first season follows the players at East Mississippi Community College as they struggle against academic and societal pressures, all for their "last chance" to turn their lives around. *Liz couldn't write this letter, for fear it would turn into either a diatribe about the lack of scholarships for collegiate cheerleaders or a personal narrative about breaking her arm in 2005 during Stingrays Cheer Camp.
This six-episode documentary series follows the competitive cheerleaders at Navarro College, a junior college in Corsicana, Texas, as they pursue their 14th national championship since the year 2000. And it is ridiculously riveting. While Cheer clearly has many goals, the reverberating theme is that cheerleading is a sport and should be treated like such. It honors the mental and physical toughness of the Navarro team, especially their perseverance through incredibly difficult personal circumstances. And it turns a spotlight onto really incredible and entertaining athletic feats that most people don't see very often. ESPN has stopped airing even the College National Championship, so you can only see the competition in person in Daytona Beach, Florida. (It seems to also be available to stream on the NCA website.) The athletic element of the series is so much fun to watch. (Far more fun than the football in Last Chance U.) The team's two-and-a-half-minute routine combines the gravity-defying tumbling of gymnastics with the complex coordination and gracefulness of synchronized swimming. It's upbeat and exciting, and somehow it doesn't get old to watch over and over for the duration of the series. The stunters are throwing baskets that send the flyers fifteen feet in the air, cradle them, and pop them right back up into a pike, and then reload for a scorpion! And the tumbling pass includes a back tuck punch-back tuck whip whip combo!!! (Don't worry, you'll pick up on the lingo quick—or you can use this handy cheer glossary Liz just located.) Like in Last Chance U, director Greg Whiteley also focuses on our subjects' backstories. We meet a number of the 40-person team—only 20 of whom will make it "onto the mat" at the National Cheer Associations championship in Daytona—and Coach Monica Aldama. Monica is a coach and cheerleader of mythic proportions—she inspires fear, wonder, and unwavering loyalty in her athletes. (And in Reese Witherspoon, apparently.) And the young men and women she coaches "would do anything for her"—even if that means risking concussion after concussion, broken bone after broken bone. Writing in The Atlantic, Amanda Mull laments what she sees as the obvious abusiveness of the situation and lambasts the documentary for its uncritical portrayal of Coach Monica. The documentary does include an extended scene in which Aldama forces stunter TT to practice with a back injury to prove a point, endangering both him and the women he's tasked with catching as they fall through the air. And it's clear that flyer Morgan cheers through broken ribs because of her loyalty to her coach. But for every scene in which Aldama completely ignores her athletes' safety, there are two in which she is supportive or compassionate. The most astonishing thing to me about the series isn't Aldama's zeal—we've seen plenty of coaches, mostly male, with similar attitudes—but the poor quality of care the Navarro cheerleaders receive. Again, though, I think this goes back to the series' project: It wants to lend credibility to a sport that isn't take seriously. The lack of healthcare, academic support, and safety are not issues restricted to Navarro or to junior colleges. Note that even at Amanda Mull's alma mater, the University of Georgia, and at other NCAA schools, cheerleaders are not considered athletes and thus not given scholarships, tutoring, or healthcare. Cheer offers a closeup of an overlooked sport and the people at the very top of it—people who do not get the endorsements that collegiate football, basketball, and even gymnastics athletes receive. Happy streaming! Grace