Sunday, April 12, 2020

Bring It On: CHEER

Cheer is a rousing sports story that sees sharply, and with complexity, its appealing cast of characters. For a six-part documentary miniseries streaming on Netflix, its patient compassion and well-judged depth gathers up cinematic quality. (A great deal of the service’s own Original Movies can’t manage that.) It takes as its subject competitive cheerleading, which could lend itself to surface level television tabloid trash — think the risible true crime freak show Tiger King streaming one click over — but at every moment it resists. Like Steve James’ classic Hoop Dreams — a three-hour documentary following two young basketball players over years in early-90’s Chicago — it takes a sport seriously as a means of understanding not just a subculture, but as synecdoche for race and class, and here gender and sexuality as well. In Cheer it means seeing the incredible performers of Navarro College in small-town Texas as they’re tumbling and stunting, flipping and flopping, pushing their bodies in a hybrid of dance and acrobatics. But it also means seeing the diversity of lives drawn together in this common pursuit; cumulatively, the team is a portrait of modern young lives yearning for purpose and belonging, aching to actualize potential and coexist in fulfilling relationships as a larger community is built up around their pursuit of excellence.

The project is inspiring without being sentimental, clear-eyed without growing unsympathetic, deeply invested in these lives without putting them on rubbernecking display. As we learn about the cheerleaders’ home lives and pasts, we see this group of young people as a cross section of America today. In their stories are abuse and inequality, prejudice and dysfunction. And yet here they are, pushing on, ready to pull together and become a team. Competitive cheerleading is a feat of bodies in motion, muscles straining in the best moments, bones battered and broken when it goes wrong. The filmmaking sets the record straight, resisting the cutesy triviality of cheerleader stereotype. They’re high-level athletes, and the constant looming deadline of national competition tightens the vice on the stakes surrounding the character studies. With detailed specificity, digging into the specifics of this sport and these team members, the filmmaking gathers incredible force: a picture of memorable personalities in perilous pursuit of perfection. Like all the best sports movies, it’s about the thrill of a team pushing past emotional and physical damage to build a makeshift family that’ll last longer than the outcome of the big game.

The documentary succeeds with the good fortune of finding captivating characters — personalities that read on screen and develop with all the patience and care of a well-told story— and serving them well. The filmmakers expertly edit the footage in a coherent narrative of criss-crossing individual storylines, compelling and deeply invested in each individual’s outcome as much as the team’s. Because the project cares deeply about their lives — their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and challenges — the film gathers tremendous empathetic suspense. These cheerleaders come from all over the country, drawn to what we’re told is the best cheerleading program in the country, under the perfectionist eye of hard-driving coach Monica Aldama, a tough taskmaster and caring den mother. We hear stories of the cheerleaders’ lives up to this point. Some have spent time homeless; others are wounded from tense family situations; still others are social media influencers — cheerlebrities, if you didn’t know. Some suffer from lack of parental influence; others have dominating stage parents. They all find something they need in this sport, and this coach.

Under the watchful camera of the talented documentary team — directed primarily by Greg Whiteley, whose sensitivity here matches his 2013 campaign film Mitt; he has an eye for drawing out human drama with compassion in the face of unflinching reality — the subjects and their stories are as rich as a well-wrought narrative’s. The more we learn about the players, the more we can grok the pain and promise behind glances in rehearsal footage, track the dynamics between them, and recognize voices as they rise above the shouts in the din of the echoing gym. They become not just stock figures in a doc that expertly uses a sport’s season structure to build narrative momentum. (Each title card announcing the number of days to the championship is a fresh twist of suspense as injuries pile up and excitement grows.) The subjects are real people, after all, throwing themselves body and soul into the one thing they enjoy most, developing themselves as young people in flux, pushing themselves to the limit for something bruising and beautiful — and all too brief. (There's also a key aesthetic choice in the last hour -- forced by permit issues -- that becomes a good conceit, letting the team itself take charge of the framing at its climax, a last burst of immediacy for a project so attuned to their stories.) There is no professional cheerleading of this sort. This is the end of the line. This is it. The final moments are poignant, not merely for the outcome of the competition and where the individuals hope to go from there, but for the release, and the vivid sense of loss. It consumed their whole lives. Now what? And so in the heat of the build up, they go all out. They compete and they collide; they struggle and they grow; they work together, and, for fleeting, terrifying, perfect moments, they fly.

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