Attending a high school that didn’t have its own sports teams, my concept of cheerleaders mostly came from what I saw on TV. White, pretty, mean. They cheered to make themselves popular or to date football players.
The recent Netflix miniseries “Cheer” flips all those stereotypes on their heads.
“Cheer” follows the real-life cheerleading team at Navarro College, a community college in rural Texas. The show’s arc juxtaposes two common sports movie tropes that aren’t normally seen together — the dominant juggernaut with a deep-seated desire to win and the scrappy, diverse underdogs who play above their means. The opening makes it clear that Navarro is a dominant force in the world of cheerleading and that their driven coach, Monica, will accept nothing less than another national title.
But these aren’t your typical teen sitcom cheerleaders. Many of Navarro’s cheerleaders are minorities or from low-income backgrounds. For some of them, cheerleading is literally all they have, and it’s that — the undeniably human stories of these athletes overcoming what life has thrown at them to come together and create something bigger than themselves — that makes the most compelling part of the show.
This show is not always pretty. Monica’s tactics occasionally border on abusive. There are a lot of injuries, and many of them are not handled properly. (It’s unclear if this is due to lack of adequate athletic medicine resources, negligence from coaches or both.) This is the dark underbelly of many sports, and “Cheer” presents it right alongside the feel-good narratives and lets you decide for yourself what you think. That was one of the more fascinating aspects of the show for me, especially as someone who is frequently around sports.
The show centers primarily on five protagonists — Lexi, Morgan, LaDarius, Jerry and Gabi — as they prepare for nationals with their team. All five are easy to root for. They all had different hopes and dreams and as the show reached its conclusion, I found myself cheering for them all to find success in their own ways. Throughout the documentary, you see a lot of footage from practice and information on how Navarro’s routine is coming, but you also get to hear the backstory of these five and see the impact that being part of the team has had in their lives.
I found out two episodes into “Cheer” that Navarro is one of only two teams in its division. Trinity Valley, the school it mentions as Navarro’s biggest rival, is in fact its only rival. The miniseries conceals this fact, but somehow it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. As the series went on, I found myself wondering more what would happen to each of the main team members rather than whether Navarro would win its championship. For that reason, I appreciated that “Cheer” doesn’t end with Navarro’s nationals performance. Instead, it goes on to show what happened to everyone after they walked off the stage — and not everything wraps up in a neat little bow.
“Cheer” is sports documentary meets sports movie, a David and Goliath story at the same time. Not everything is as glitzy and glamorous as the cheerleaders I saw on TV as a kid. And those things are what make the show so compelling.