There are moments in “Cheer” where it’s not exactly clear if the footage being shown is moving forward or in reverse. It’s a testament to the Navarro Cheerleading team, subject of this new Netflix documentary series, that their members are talented and disciplined enough that the watchlike movements find members flying through the air in ways that don’t seem like it should be possible. Whether watching that kind of acrobatic skill is a revelation or commonplace, there’s enough in “Cheer” to keep you engaged in a number of different ways.
The series comes from director Greg Whiteley and the team behind “Last Chance U,” shifting their focus on life inside a junior collegiate program from the world of football to the world of cheerleading. Much of the stylistic approach translates well. Speaking to cheer team members in their dorm rooms and coaches in their offices, there’s a feeling of capturing a natural environment rather than setting up a world to depict. Essentially embedding with the team over a lead-up to a season-ending test of skill and teamwork, there’s a chance to watch certain central figures evolve and respond to the challenges along the way.
But to draw a simple one-to-one connection between football and cheerleading would overlook all the ways that “Cheer” often benefits more from this team’s style. Though the Navarro team is working so that they can eventually compete against other college teams across the country, their main opponent is essentially themselves. So rather than zero in on whether or not Navarro wins in the end, the show becomes more about how metrics for success get foisted on them and the ones they try to grasp for themselves.
So, with only an occasional on-screen reminder of the number of days before the final performance at NCA College Nationals in Daytona, FL, the rest of the season-long arcs come in the slight changes that repetition helps to highlight. Seeing the moves establishing the pyramid over and over, you start to get the rhythm of individual moves and see how the literal and metaphorical foundations of the routine interact with the moving parts more visible up top. There’s no easy set of stats to follow, so “Cheer” documents the gradual progression from picking the main routine’s participants to seeing the final roster perform it in all its sparkling glory.
That also plays out in how the show lets smaller details of this Navarro world develop over the course of six episodes. For those unfamiliar with the cheer specifics, vocab like “making mat” and “first full out” are provided in full context without the show having to pause to explain. Much like Whiteley, co-directors Arielle Kilker and Chelsea Yarnell, and the rest of the camera crew seem to have earned the trust of those in the Navarro structure, they trust that viewers will be able to pick up on the moments when these young women and men’s shakiness gives way to a smoother, assured mastery.
Courtesy of Netflix
Of course, as with any documentary project about an athletic team, the true value lies in how well “Cheer” weaves together that common pursuit and smaller portraits of the individuals making it happen. From head coach Monica Aldama to flyer Lexi to stunt base Jerry, there’s an effort made to understand these people as people, not just a product of what they’re able to do on the confines of the mat. In almost all cases, “Cheer” leads with showing what they’re capable of, then pulling back to show the people from their hometown or in their Navarro world that helped make them who they are.
As much as it salutes the various breakthroughs that Navarro team members make, “Cheer” is certainly not blind to the consequences that come with such a full commitment to a single pursuit. One episode opens with the trainer detailing the number of stress injuries with the relative ease of reciting a grocery list. Without being exploitative, “Cheer” shows the emotional toll that comes with competing pressures on and off the mat. Some of them come from family stressors, others come from an outsized influence on social media, while still more can come from within the team.
In that way, “Cheer” avoids a problem that can come from any team. It balances the way that these fliers and bases can find fulfillment through committing to a unit like this while realizing how these institutions can treat them as assets. But even as setbacks happen and members of the team are swapped in and out for various reasons, “Cheer” makes sure to follow the trajectories of the people at the center of the show’s story, whether they’re reacting wordlessly on the sideline or the top girl hurtling through the air to help set up the team’s final pyramid.
And even as Navarro is established as a powerhouse within the cheerleading world, circumstances allow “Cheer” to present their path to Daytona as both the story of a juggernaut and one of an underdog. Balancing both the team spirit and the individual trials faced by those who’ve devoted years to a competition that lasts mere minutes, “Cheer” affords both them and the audience the space to figure out how much of this is worth the cost.
“Cheer” is now available to stream on Netflix.