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Cheer: The gritty Netflix series exposing the truth about cheerleading

An instant hit, the Netflix docuseries, Cheer, goes deep inside the lives of America's leading college cheerleaders, on and off the mat - and it's not pretty, writes Alice Vincent

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Squad goals: The Navarro cheerleaders

Squad goals: The Navarro cheerleaders

Squad goals: The Navarro cheerleaders

A bare-faced blonde teenager looks down the barrel of the camera. "I've been concussed five times," she says, as if explaining what she ate for breakfast. Mackenzie Sherburn, better known as Sherbs, is a "top girl" of the elite Navarro College Cheerleading team. And hers is the kind of revelation that has transformed Cheer, a fly-on-the-wall about college cheerleading, into Netflix's latest unlikely sleeper hit: funny, then shocking, and somehow strangely poignant.

Much like the teenagers who dedicate their life to the sport, Cheer is the kind of show that is easily dismissed as trite and unserious but belies a muscular core. Take everything you might expect from cheerleading (catfighting; preppy, popular airheads) and it will be broken down by the efforts of college students who have been through more, in every way, than most people could ever imagine.

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Lexi

Lexi

From the start, it is made clear that the college cheerleading Cheer documents is not Bring it On, the delightfully frothy teen movie that attracted a similarly cult following after its release in 2000. But the pair occupy similar territories - tiny outfits, fearsome rivalries, the very real fear of suffering a catastrophic injury - and a plotline: showing the defending national champions are attempting to maintain their title.

Cheer exposes the gasp-inducing grit and tenacity that fuels the country's top team as they rumble towards the only competition that matters: the NCA National Cheerleading Championship, held in an imperious outdoor arena in Daytona, Florida.

Director Greg Whiteley has turned the grubby athletics halls and dorm rooms of Navarro College into an arena for empathy and determination, and viewers have found themselves hooked to his storytelling. The "kids", as they are often referred to, bond fiercely into unofficial families. Turmoil tumbles out with every pointed toe.

No wonder, then, that Cheer rose to the top 10 most-watched shows in the UK. Within a week of Cheer's debut, the internet bubbled with enthusiastic guides to the teenagers who become its stars and how to find them on Instagram. Even in Cheer's native US, where cheerleading is a more storied phenomenon, viewers have been taken aback by Cheer's poignancy and peril. It is both difficult and addictive, it turns out, to watch vulnerable adolescents work so hard to risk so much.

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Morgan

Morgan

Navarro's cheerleading squad is a documentary-maker's dream. Its reputation is so hallowed that the college attracts cheer talent from across the country to Corsicana, a sleepy Texan farming town famed for fruitcake.

While cheerleading is an expensive hobby to encourage a child to take up (uniforms, tumbling classes, gym registration) many of Navarro's cheerleaders have grown up around poverty, drugs, abandonment and abuse. During Cheer's first episode, one explains that without the structure of Navarro, they "wouldn't be here", and it sounds like teenage hyperbole. By the series' end, it becomes apparent that their finding salvation in the team is little short of miraculous.

Navarro's most potent weapon and driving force is Monica Aldama, a Corsicana native who gave up her dreams of being a Wall Street CEO to make her former cheer team the best.

As a female coach, Aldama would be an anomaly in the sport anyway. But over the course of Cheer it becomes apparent that she is a remarkable human; a person who balances ferocious discipline with a gargantuan capacity for care.

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Coach Monica Aldama with a cheerleader

Coach Monica Aldama with a cheerleader

It's a heady combination that this rag-tag bunch of wildly athletic teenagers never knew they needed, of which she is well aware. "I don't want them to ever feel like they're not safe with me, because they'll always be safe with me," she says, in one of the show's many candid pieces to camera. For Jerry Harris, whose grief rests just beneath puppyish excitement; for LaDarius Marshall, whose talent is always tussling with his anger for first place and for stoner-loner Lexi Brumback, likely to enter Cheer history for her prodigious tumbling, Aldama offers a strength and stability absent from their own upbringings.

Aldama's relationship with Morgan Simianer, an underdog flyer who was left to fend for herself in a trailer in Wyoming, is particularly touching. "People have broken their necks doing this, but Monica needs me to do it so I'll just do it," Morgan says of a series of basket tosses, breathing around ribs on the cusp of fracture.

What could be overblown sob stories are, instead, eked out in unfussy interviews with grandparents, neighbours and other caregivers, who looked out for children growing up in backyards in Florida or the open fields of the midwest. We see their bedrooms and childhood snapshots. The filmed conversations are so casual, those speaking so at ease, that life gets in around the edges.

Whitely allows us to meet these young people as they currently are - happy, panting, lycra-clad cheerleaders - before telling us what they have been. Just as we think we have the measure of their strength, we learn of the years of childhood abuse that have been endured, or the depths of suicidal feeling that they have, mercifully, recovered from. As a viewer, such revelations arrive with the winding blow of a bad landing.

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A squad member in uniform

A squad member in uniform

And there are many bad landings. One of two medics-cum-physiotherapists is always in attendance at Navarro's practices, and they get plenty of screentime applying pressure to ankles and kneading out pain in grim-faced cheerleaders. "A lot of shin-splints, a lot of rolled ankles, sprained ankles," Cameron, the weary-looking physio, rattles off. "A lot of people on that team with grade three AC separation, rotator cuff tears, patella tendon tears, head injuries…"

Faith is what carries them through. "I pretty much trust everyone on the team to catch me," Sherbs explains at the beginning of the third episode. She's integral to every part of the Daytona routine.

To the concentrated quiet of the last pyramid rehearsal of the evening, we watch as she is thrown across her team into nothingness, just a gap in the line-up where her teammates should have been standing, ready to catch her. Sherbs plummets to the floor with a sickening crunch.

The floor clears, so the team can do the 50 press-up punishment that ensues when someone is dropped. It is only in the next episode that we learn that Sherbs has dislocated her elbow and will be out for eight to 10 weeks. Her role in the team is spoken about in past tense.

Cheering for Navarro comes with a time limit. Those two years of college will be the last of a cheerleader's career; those lucky enough to make "mat", or the team of 20 (of 40 total) that competes in Daytona, will often never do another routine after the 150-second performance that declares them champions or merely second-best. That notion of transience lends an undeniable bass note to proceedings.

And that's probably why the alumni keep coming back. It's only in the penultimate episode that we learn that Aldama's precocious student assistant coach Kapena Kea was in - and then, dramatically, out of - the team just the summer before.

For others, such as Aric Rodriguez, the firefighter who fits visits to practice around trips to Texas, or those from the first victorious 2000 team who bring their children along to "full-out" rehearsals, it's clear that Navarro has shaped his adulthood. Rodriguez wistfully admits that being on the team was "some of my better days", and that he misses "cheerleading every day". Within a few episodes it becomes apparent that, even though the team are desperate to win at Daytona, it is far from the greatest prize they will have earned.

The final episode unfolds like the final, climactic scenes of a perfectly calibrated thriller. Throughout Cheer, the viewer is never shown the full competition routine. Instead, we are left to understand a successful basket toss or towering pyramid through the reaction of those watching, and during the competition, the arms that Aldama usually crosses over her chest are hammering the stage with animalistic fervour.

We suspect it's going well, but we only know the true result seconds before it is revealed, when Morgan collapses to the ground, in spite of the sportsmanly rules that dictate no emotion is shown until the winner's announcement. Whiteley traces the following release - all that training, all that hope - on the faces we have spent six hours growing to root for, and it's easy to understand why they put themselves through it.

For all the neat, pointed bows fixed onto ponytails during the show, Cheer doesn't fully end in one. The documentary catches up with its stars months after Daytona. LaDarius is emulating Aldama's tough love at gymnasiums in Florida, where he is from; Jerry wins a generous scholarship to Louisville University, while Morgan puts off graduation to cheer for another year.

Lexi, though, has cut loose. She was kicked out of the team after a run-in with the police. The camera follows her as she attends a bleak-looking rave in Houston. Back in Corsicana, Aldama recalls their last conversation: "I feel like you need me, still, but I can't be there with you in Houston, and you can't be here with me, because of your choices."

The loss of both is palpable. After the show airs, Lexi interrupts her Instagram feed of party shots with a more familiar image: perched on the shoulders of a couple of stunters, wearing a Navarro Cheer top. "Honey, I'm home," read the caption.

Like Morgan, Lexi will be training alongside the successful among those we see trying out in front of Aldama, and returning assistant coach Kapena Kea. Daytona will return in April, and Navarro have a championship to defend.

Irish Independent