From The Guardian
Simply watching Cheer, Netflix’s documentary series about cheerleading champions from Navarro college in Texas is like being in the marines. Seeing the dedication, resilience and innate talent of the athletes, many of whom come from profoundly troubled backgrounds and have seized upon the sport and the specialised college course as an almost literal lifeline, will break you down. (“What,” you will find yourself asking, “is there in my pathetic simulacrum of existence that can compare to this ennobling vision of humanity unspooling across six hour-long episodes before my sofa-spread, doughy form?” and no answer will come.)
But then it will build you back up. “Look what the human body is capable of!” you will start to think, as 40 students made entirely of muscle and sinew bend, flip, form pyramids, toss and catch each other midair – and generally disapply all known laws of physics. They are as gods, and if you cannot hope to emulate, you will surely wish to serve.
The members of the Navarro squad are competitive cheerleaders (distinct from football cheerleaders who dominate the public image of the activity), and its practitioners are somewhere between acrobats, dancers and weightlifters, while maintaining the stamina of long-distance runners. The series focuses, refreshingly, on the graft, not the glamour – which comes for a few fleeting minutes at the end of a year’s training when state teams converge on the national championship in Daytona to compress all their work into one routine around 200 seconds long. And although it registers friendships and fallings-out, it does not make them into soapy storylines. It prefers, equally refreshingly, to dig deep into the many qualities that must combine to make a single performer, and then how they must coalesce into one team.
The multiple daily practices are relentless, the technical prowess required is daunting, and the singularity of vision amounts to monomania. Any illusions you ever had about cheerleading will shatter within minutes. Scales will fall from your eyes more quickly than a flyer from a shonky pyramid practice. Flyers are the smallest, lightest squad members – the most easily launched and caught in basket tosses, and the ones catapulted to the very top of any formation.
Each episode fills in, without sensationalism or sentimentality, the backstories of various squad members. The gravity-defying tumbler Lexi, for example, was a teenage runaway. Flyer and tumbler Morgan became near suicidal through childhood neglect by her parents. Now, she competes alongside the others, despite having only a fraction of their training. By the end of it she has surpassed even the highest expectations. And the stunter (one of the rocks on which formations are built) and tumbler La’Darius has endured parental neglect, sexual abuse at his carer’s home and violence from his brothers who, horrified by his homosexuality but scared what it would mean for him, tried to “beat him into a man”. He survived a suicide attempt and now moves with impossible strength, skill and grace throughout the routine that we watch come together over the 68 days they have before Daytona.
Head to The Guardian to continue reading.