Television hasn’t been especially kind to cheerleaders, usually portraying them as bullies, beyotches and brazen killers. The worst of it is always somehow loosely based on a true-crime tale, often originating somewhere in Texas. How long must these beautiful and popular people endure the effects of stereotype? And could the sympathy violins get any tinier?
This is where director Greg Whiteley’s fascinating — and often surprisingly moving — documentary series “Cheer” (now streaming on Netflix) tries to meet us: right at the line between cliche and reality, as he and his cameras follow a season in the life of the scrappy but consistently winning cheer program at Navarro, a 9,000-student community college in Corsicana, Tex., about 50 miles south of Dallas.
Navarro’s cheer team — the Bulldogs — has won the national title in its division more than a dozen times over the past two decades, thanks to the fierce (and occasionally fearsome) dedication of its coach, Monica Aldama.
“They’re the best of the best of the best,” says Billy Smith, a competition organizer.
Whiteley, whose previous work includes “Last Chance U” and “Mitt,” smartly begins by trying to determine what glories cheerleading still brings in today’s America, beyond the fantasies of high school football games and clique status.
Random interviews on Corsicana’s main streets reveal little if any awareness among the locals of Navarro’s cheer acclaim (the town is best known for its mail-order fruitcake factory) or that cheerleading long ago became its own sport with scholarship athletes. Their biggest fan is the town’s spirited police chief, but beyond that, even the college’s Wikipedia page, at this writing, omits its cheer team’s successes.
There’s a depressing insularity to it — a very specific bubble of determination within the larger, protectively impermeable bubble that is Texas itself. “Cheer” is tasked with giving us a brief yet jaw-dropping primer on cheer, both as a loosely affiliated collegiate sport and as a billion-dollar industry. We also learn of its daunting reputation for injury — twisted ankles, broken bones, bruised ribs, concussions and worse. More hurtful, perhaps, is the final heartbreak: After the team members graduate, there’s nowhere to go, nothing left to cheer for.