If the question, “Will Jerry make mat?” requires no explanation, then you are already familiar with the intense but insanely compelling six-part docuseries that is Cheer. You know the revered coach Monica Aldama, are familiar with her trademark boots, her mild temperament and amused grins that say nothing about her competitive, perfectionist spirit. The words “tumbling” and “baskets” have gained new meaning, and you watched, anxious, as the Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team competed for another title at the annual National Cheerleading Championship in Daytona, Florida.
I say “another” because in Cheer, the team is not chasing its first win. They have triumphed many times under Monica, who takes them under her wing with a business mind and the attitude of a maternal saviour. The cheerleaders are seeking personal triumphs, but they also really, really want to win for Monica.
Cheerleading remains linked to the yesteryear image of pompoms and short skirts, but this is not that kind of cheerleading. Youthful and optimistic (smile, always!), this is cirque du insanity, with deafening “mat talk” (cheering on teammates) and death-defying tumbles and flips. These athletes do things most humans cannot do. Arguably, they do things most humans should not attempt.
Your classic Hollywood athletic film is generally about a highly skilled coach leading players with potential to victory – and very importantly, fostering transformation, inner strength and self-worth. In a similar vein, Navarro’s team is composed of talented athletes but some are not great – yet. They get in because they have the look or potential Monica seeks. On the mat are well-built male athletes, literally holding up female cheerleaders who are cute and petite. Monica beams when they’re in uniform, unnervingly dolled up like they’re headed to a beauty pageant to comment on prospects for world peace.
Meanwhile, the mixed-race team resides in a small, conservative, Trump-sympathetic town in Texas called Corsicana, previously known more for its fruit cake than its trophy-magnet cheer team. (Seriously.)
You don’t need to like a sport to partake in its world (see: the documentary about the Chicago Bulls, The Last Dance). Cheer is that kind of story, supported heavily by high stakes and those individual tales of painful transformation. And while it’s southern Americana, it will suck you in to an astounding microverse populated by motivated people doing unnatural things to their bodies in order to succeed. It’s cheerleading but with much higher stakes than Bring It On. Indeed, race relations take a back row to the individual journeys featured.
These personal stories are a strength, documenting not only current challenges but the personal tragedies that have led them to this point. There’s Jerry, who is kind, supportive and arguably every viewer’s favourite, but he has limited capabilities as a cheerleader. All we want is to see him “make mat”, which means make the cut for Daytona. There’s gum-chewing Morgan, whose devotion to Monica is equalled only by her dedication to practise. When she returns from a hospital visit with a warning that she shouldn’t continue practising in case she, like, punctures an organ, she shrugs it off. You can get by on one kidney, right? There’s Gabi, a sweet and highly regarded but also Instagram-famous cheerleader who must navigate the demands on her time – including an overbearing family. Then there’s La’Darius, a proficient but troubled performer who hovers between greatness and self-sabotage. He went viral long before Cheer dropped for his playful “groove” at a game.
While I query the price of competitive sport, I can also see its appeal. Creative energy needs somewhere to go. We need ways to work through what we can’t control, to dim the past and find new emotional outlets. And doing so in a team can be both challenging and rewarding, as Cheer dutifully shows us. So I wager it would be difficult to watch Cheer and not find yourself absorbed by the trials and triumphs of college athletics and what it says about the human spirit.
And let’s be honest: who doesn’t wish, even briefly, that they could be tossed into the air knowing someone will be there to catch them?
• Cheer is available to stream in Australia on Netflix