Spoiler alert. If you haven’t watched Cheer and intend to, stop reading now.
As someone who was once a cheerleader at my high school back in the U.S., I knew I had to watch the new Netflix series, Cheer.
Based at a small-town junior college in Texas, the documentary follows the country’s renowned Navarro cheer team as they make their way through a season. Focusing on cheerleading as a sport, the documentary chronicles the intense mental and physical battles that athletes face while performing and the immense pressure of preparing for competition.
Leading up to the Daytona Beach Cheer Competition, the largest one of the year, the documentary focuses on five athletes, sharing their personal stories as well as their athletic abilities. With the documentary’s depiction of both the sport and its participants, I found Cheer to be a refreshing alternative to the stereotypes usually associated with cheerleading.
Here’s my review of Cheer, from the perspective of an ex-cheerleader.
Finally, someone has shown cheer as it really is.
Despite being seen as a sideline attraction for so many years, cheerleading is — in my opinion — one of the most challenging sports to compete in. Especially when tied to a school, cheerleaders are expected not only to perform for other sporting events but also to compete as a team. This means twice as many commitments, twice as many practices, and two completely different sets of objectives to focus on throughout the season.
The uniforms might look flashy and the stunts might be showy, but the amount of work that goes into looking so effortlessly perfect is anything but easy. Cheer did a great job of depicting this reality, mostly portraying the athletes in their real element, rather than in performance mode. Shot in muted tones, the bulk of the series focuses on practices. With the girls makeup-free and stunts falling left-and-right, the documentary shared the grit and determination required of the sport rarely seen by those outside the immediate sphere of cheerleading.
By relating the individual stories of the athletes’ past lives to their performance in the sport, the documentary illuminated that cheerleaders are just as tough as any other sports star, both physically and mentally. Because cheer has been taken less seriously as a sport on its own right, I believe that Netflix did a huge favour to cheerleaders everywhere by finally validating all the hard work put into it.
My criticisms of the documentary are few and far between. If anything, I would’ve liked to see more. While it was interesting to focus on five key-players throughout the entire series, it did make me curious as to what the other team members thought — leaving me wishing that each person on the team could have their own segment in the documentary.
Knowing that the team was so large, and the series only six parts, it makes sense that Netflix chose to focus on a few individuals rather than each team member. Nevertheless, it left me longing to find out more about everyone, their friendships, and even the competitor teams.
Despite how much I loved the series, however, it left me with a sense of dread. When I quit cheerleading, it was shortly after I had broken my foot during a stunt gone wrong. Though I finished off the season with my team, I had to reevaluate when the end of the year rolled around. No matter how great the feeling of getting thrown in the air was when everything went well, I couldn’t help but feel that I would damage my health in the long term if I kept it up.
Cheerleading is nothing if not intense, and oftentimes serious injuries aren’t even enough to convince athletes (and coaches) to go easy. Cheer portrayed this dark side of the sport well, but watching it be relived on my laptop screen made my stomach turn.
In addition to the dropped stunts and injuries, the stories of hardship and struggle portrayed in the documentary left me feeling anxious for some of the athletes. Though most shared a story of how cheerleading helped them overcome darker days, the series points out that a cheerleader’s career is very limited. After college, there’s no such thing as a professional competitive cheerleader, and knowing this made me worry for what these athletes would do when their time at Navarro came to an end.
I also felt dread and fear for one of the main characters, Lexi, who — after turning her life around on the Navarro team — was eventually kicked off in the last episode. Throughout the series, her story unfolds and you can’t help but root for her to end up somewhere better than she came from. To see her story end with her heading back towards her old ways saddened me in a very personal way.
Since then, however, Netflix has shared on Instagram that Lexi will be returning to the team — leaving me with a much better taste in my mouth than the sad finale of her seeming to slip away once again.