Cheering can be lethal.
That’s not a sentence I would’ve uttered before watching Netflix’s riveting docuseries Cheer, but there you have it.
I’d seen this level of competitive cheerleading before—the kind that involves throwing girls high in the air and “basket catching” them, often while in a human pyramid formation—and I thought, “Wow. That can’t be as dangerous as it looks.” Wrong. It actually is that dangerous. People get injured all the time. Concussions, contusions, dislocations, and fractures are routine. It’s just a matter of time before someone actually dies. (Edited to add: It’s already happened.)
That’s the most insane thing about this series. There’s not an episode where someone (or multiple someones) doesn’t come crashing to the ground with a terrifying thud (those mats on hardwood floor don’t provide much cushion) and we wait, our hearts in our mouths, to find out if they’re okay. Notably, the kids themselves don’t always know if they’re okay. Every fall is followed by moans and tears of pain and dread and fear. Essentially, these kids are put through hell.
Cheer follows the Navarro (Texas) Cheerleading squad as they head to the national championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. The team has won numerous times before, including last year. Anything but first place would be considered a failure, upping the already enormous pressure.
Guiding the team to victory year after year is steely head coach Monica Aldama, a truly compelling figure who is the series’ secret weapon.
Monica looks nothing like what one might expect a cheerleading coach to look like: She resembles no gym teacher I’ve ever seen and she doesn’t even give off a perky, compact, former-gymnast vibe. Instead, she is tall and lithe and glamorous, with silk blouses, fashionably wide-leg pants, and perfectly highlighted hair. She looks a bit like Jennifer Aniston crossed with Nancy Lee Grahn from General Hospital (Google her). She seems, in some ways, like she’d be more at home at a Wall Street conference table than a sweaty gym, not surprising because she also possesses an MBA.
She’s a tough love kind of coach—having her kids do pushups when they drop someone, for example; never indulging their tears—but we’ve seen that sort of thing before. What makes her so fascinating is the almost queenly way she presides over the high-stakes practices—her face nearly inscrutable as one kid after another thwacks to the floor. By the end of the series, I really did come to believe that she cared about her kids in her own way (I was on the fence for a while), but what she cares about most deeply, even obsessively, is winning. So every time someone falls you can see her brain beginning to calculate the fallout: How bad is the injury? Will the kid need to be replaced? If so, who will replace them? Will she be able to whip the new person into shape? She is, essentially, moving pieces around a particularly perilous chess board.
And yet, her charges absolutely adore her. One girl says she’d take a bullet for her. A boy says she’s everything he wants to be when he grows up.
Cheer, of course, allows us to get to know these kids—all of them, to an extent, as well as Monica’s loyal right hand man, a former cheerleader himself (whose devotion to his boss made me think of no less than Gary on Veep).
But it focuses primarily on five kids.
There’s Gabi, the most famous cheerleader, an Instagram influencer whose parents are dangerously invested in her cheering career and social media success.
Then there’s Morgan, a stoic and determined girl who pushes through fractured ribs to please her coach.
There’s LaDarius, a gifted athlete (the kid can tumble for days) who is also a childhood trauma survivor. Quick to anger, he channels all of his pain into his sport.
There’s Lexi, who has been in and out of trouble all her life, who found structure and a surrogate family on the cheer squad.
And best of all, there’s Jerry, a big-hearted sweetie pie who manages to spread positivity wherever he goes (he’s the kind of person about whom millennials say is “too pure for this world.”) One of the series’ biggest mysteries is whether or not he’ll make “mat” or be a backup at Daytona. (You’ll root for him hard.)
Interestingly, many of these kids are survivors of trauma—family death, abandonment, sexual assault. Two of these kids—as well as the team’s student-coach—admit to having felt suicidal at times. I’m not quite sure why so many troubled kids are drawn to the Navarro team—is it because they specifically crave the discipline and certainty of Monica’s methods? Or is this statistically true across cheerleading?
Frankly, as a non athlete, it’s hard for me to really understand the appeal of the sport at all. These kids mostly seem miserable at practice—crying, self-flagellating, getting hurt. On top of the pressures of the sport and various pressures at school and home, they also have to deal with the dark side of social media. (When Lexi’s nudes are anonymously exposed on Instagram, Monica personally takes her to the police to report the incident, one of the coach’s finer moments.) It’s a lot.
And yet, they love it. It guess it comes down to that agony and ecstasy thing. Cheerleading, like all sports, contains the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. After watching the show, directed with incredible intelligence, restraint, and empathy by Greg Whiteley, I’m still not sure if I think cheerleading should be a thing. At the very least, there should be a national conversation about the dangers of cheerleading, in the same way that there’s been a conversation about football. But man, these kids sure can fly.