Cheerleading is popularly portrayed as a frivolous act, performed by shallow skinny girls on the sidelines of what society considers true athleticism, football and basketball. Cheer, a new documentary on Netflix, strives to change this impression. The six-part series follows the lives of cheerleaders from Navarro College of Corsicana, Texas, as they prepare for the annual national cheerleading championship held in Daytona, Florida. Under the direction of very tough but understanding coach Monica Aldama, the young athletes attempt to overcome their personal struggles and hurdles become the best that they can be.

The director Greg Whitely, previously directed Last Chance U, a six-episode series about the football program at East Mississippi Community College that features collegiate athletes who have had troubled lives and struggled with finding purpose and direction. Whitely follows the same formula here. What’s gripping about the documentary isn’t just the extremely demanding, gravity-defying cheer routines, which have people tumbling, dancing, bending, flipping and tossing and catching each other in air; it’s also stories behind each of the athletes. Cheerleading isn’t so much an extracurricular activity for these sportswomen and men as it is a means of finding peace in their lives. They’ve all grappled with life’s uncertainty and fought misfortunes: the deaths of their parents, absent parents, micromanaging families, struggles with their identity, with social media, with low self-esteem and constantly feeling like they’re not good enough. Whitely captures each of their stories in a direct yet sensitive way, focusing on a few individuals during their most emotional and intimate moments during practice and in their personal time. Each one looks at the camera and shares his or her story without any inhibition, resulting in moving stories of personal triumph.

The series subtly makes it obvious why the college students are drawn to cheerleading. It’s both an arena which allows each individual to push themselves as hard as they can as well one which pulls you into its tight-knit circle. Like any other team sport, achieving great physical success yourself is only possible if you have good camaraderie with your team. Every fault and injury affects the entire team and their prospects of winning the championships. There’s something comforting, it comes across, for these college students who haven’t had the best childhoods to now be in a disciplined, structured environment, run by coach Aldama. She’s not just a coach, but at times a mentor, friend and even almost a mother. Although she is unflinchingly strict about diet and exercise and inflexible about mistakes, she comes across as softer and more empathetic than some of the other parental figures in the series. It’s inspiring to see her train and motivate the undergraduates into accomplishing their dreams and fulfilling her vision. Cheer does reveal some of the darker sides to cheerleading: the injuries, the pressure, the impact on sense of worth and self-esteem when things don’t go right, but these ramifications are arguably present in any sport.

When you start the first episode, the serious, dramatic tone seems out of place with a series on a collegiate cheerleading team and more suitable for a documentary on soldiers or doctors. However, the sincerity and determination, the seriousness with which each athlete, their parents and supporters and Aldama take the sport, leaves no doubt that each of the athletes in the documentary has a journey and a story worth knowing about.

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