By John Hanlon
Fifty miles south of Texas, there’s a small city named Corsicana with a lot of heart. The city is home to Navarro College, a community college known for its outstanding cheerleading squad. The new Netflix documentary series Cheer captures a look at the school’s team and captures the trials, turbulence and tumult leading up to a national championship competition.
In the first episode of the six-episode series, the team is introduced. Cheerleading may seem like an outdated sport consisting of pom-poms, dance routines and routine chants but the program quickly shows how much the sport has changed over the years. Contemporary cheerleading consists of so much more.
“It’s like the best of gymnastics with the best of circus with the best of dance,” says Brad Habermel, the co-owner of Cheer Athletics. Habermel helps establish the concept of modern cheerleading before the program focuses its attention on one specific team.
That team is composed of Navarro cheerleaders and led by the tough-minded coach Monica Aldama. Unrelenting but fair, Aldama has established herself as a community leader in Corsicana and a well-respected leader in the cheer community who continually raises the bar in the sport. During her tenure at Navarro, Aldama has led her team to victory in the national championships thirteen times.
The episodes of Cheer follow her school’s cheerleading squad as they attempt to win a fourteenth championship under the guidance of Aldama. The program sets the stakes up in the first episode, which quickly paints a portrait of what being a cheerleader today means. The sport requires patience, athleticism and drive. Men and women work together to put together a routine that demands intrinsic trust between fellow athletes (if strong relationships aren’t there, a person could easily topple from the head of a pyramid).
The series follows Aldama’s squad as they prepare and eventually compete in the national championship. As the national competition approaches, the cheerleaders are tested and forced to compete with one another. Aldama and her coaching team ultimately must decide which athletes get to compete and which ones are forced to the sidelines.
Creator Greg Whiteley wisely focuses in on a few specific cheerleaders in the squad and tells their compelling stories. He ably blends scenes depicting the cheer practices in with personal interviews that reveal who the cheerleaders really are. From the exuberance of Jerry Harris to the frustrations of La'Darius Marshall, the program doesn’t sugarcoat their experiences or their personalities. Some of the program is undeniably tough to watch — some of these cheerleaders have led tough lives — but the show finds its groove and builds a compelling narrative that comes together during the national championships.
Cheer is undeniably an upbeat and uplifting show but it’s much more than that. The program doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects — bullying, cancer and abuse are a few of the subjects it touches on — and it never attempts to show just the upside of the sport. There are disappointments and heartbreaks here along with countless injuries and painful falls that are excruciating to watch.
Although a six-episode series can’t really capture the day-to-day turmoil of a team preparing for a championship, Whiteley captures enough of it to create a compelling look at an oft-underappreciated sport and some of the athletes whose lives are forever changed because of it.