Many people don’t really think about cheerleading. If they do, they think of the Dallas Cowboys and women with pom-poms and big white smiles. But there’s a lot more going on in the world of cheerleading than that. The new Netflix documentary series “Cheer” sets out to shed a spotlight on the athleticism, intensity and community of collegiate competitive cheerleading.
“Cheer” follows the Navarro College cheer team through their season on their way to the National Championships at Dayton. If you’ve never heard of Navarro College, that would make sense. Navarro is a relatively small junior college in Texas, but in the world of collegiate cheer, they are the top dog. At the time of the filming of the documentary, Navarro had won the national championship 13 times since 2000.
Led by coach Monica Aldama, the Navarro Cheer team has won the national championship more often than they’ve lost it.
The six-part documentary series follows the 2019 season team from the beginning of their season to the national championship at Daytona. And it is riveting.
When I first started the show, I wasn’t sure that it would grab me. There is a specific kind of person who closely follows the world of gymnastics and cheer, and it seemed like this might be more of their kind of niche thing. I was very wrong about that. By the second episode, this show had its hooks in me.
Between watching the cheerleaders doing acrobatic and athletic feats, the injuries that often resulted from routines and the charming and compelling cast of characters that make up the team, it was impossible to stop watching.
You have to understand that the cheer that these students do is not the cheer that you’re thinking of. Sure, they’re doing some choreography, and they’re smiling, and they even cheer for the Navarro football team, but when it comes to competition, it’s an entirely different animal. The complexity of their routines and the difficulty and athleticism involved with pulling off the stunts that they do is unbelievable. It often doesn’t even look real.
But, this is a series that follows the team through a whole season, meaning you see them from when they start to learn the routine to a year later when they compete. And they only really compete once. Daytona is their only chance at a competition and it only comes once a year, so they train for months for a two minute and fifteen-second performance.
Seeing whole process as a viewer, you witness the highs and the lows of both the routine and the team members. The number of injuries involved in the sport is not surprising but is still almost staggering. Watching someone fly through the air and then realizing there is no one there to catch them feels almost as terrifying as doing it yourself. Not only that, but if people get hurt, they get substituted out and can’t compete that year, creating a tension that runs through the entirety of the season.
Monica is there to cut the tension. She is no doubt one of the most interesting people you will hear about this year, and, in a way, the documentary is about her intimately capturing her role as a coach and as an almost mother to the students. She pushes them very hard and can be unforgiving, but in pursuit of a larger goal and in pursuit of teaching them something.
Many of the students on the team come from fairly wealthy backgrounds and have been afforded many opportunities to get to where they are at Navarro. Not to say their lives have been easy, but many of the other students have not been afforded those same privileges. Monica brings them together and gives them a home, and it’s obvious throughout the show that they love her deeply.
The students are just such good, interesting subjects for a documentary as well. There’s Jerry Harris, who works endlessly to support his fellow teammates and bring some positive but is still gunning for his place on the mat so he can compete. Then there’s Morgan Simianer, who is tiny and has a lot of potential but has a lot of work to do on her technique. Then there’s Lexi Brumback, who comes from a rough background but has found stability and a home in cheerleading. And La’Darius Marshall, who has also come from a hard upbringing and has a short fuse but is one of the best athletes on the team. And, of course, Gabi Butler, an extremely talented cheerleader who has achieved some fame as a cheerleader but realizes that comes with the price of her very difficult parents and the pressure of celebrity.
It’s just a perfect little melting pot of people that are so fascinating to watch interact and learn more about. It surprised me how much I cared for each and every one of them by the end. I wanted to see them win so badly.
The turns that the series takes are dramatic, and the filmmaking is very impressive. Creator Greg Whiteley, who also created the show “Last Chance U,” found something very special to explore in this show, and I cannot recommend it enough.