Hitting Zero: How ‘Cheer’ Uses Its Cheerleaders to Re-Invent Its Narrative

“You got it boo, push through.”

The first sentence spoken in Cheer’s six episode run feels a very apt summary for its overwhelmingly heart-warming and supportive narrative, which delves into the word of collegiate cheerleading and one of its key competitors – Navarro College. Cheer showcases the lives and stories of several of the individuals under Coach Monica Aldama’s wing, following their often-heart-breaking stories of pure grit and determination that bring them to the competitive world of cheerleading.

From the very beginning of the series we are presented with the overwhelming reality of the highlight of the Navarro Cheer calendar: the Daytona Beach Cheerleading Competition, the stage for the NCA (National Cheerleading Association) and NDA (National Dance Association) Collegiate National Championship. “Everything we work for comes down to two minutes and fifteen seconds”, Aldama tells the audience, a foresight that cheerleading newbies will come to appreciate when faced with only fragments of the preparation, changes and injuries that go into preparing a two-minute cheerleading routine.

Everything in Cheer’s narrative is leading up to this coveted two minutes and fifteen seconds; it is why the cheerleaders work so hard and why we invest in a climax we hope to see fulfilled in the series’ end.  However, an interview in Cheer’s final episode showed a twist in the documentary’s narrative that no one saw coming.

Several men surround Darius - muscular black man - and cheer him on as he holds someone above his head.
Image Courtesy of Netflix (x)

“You know, everyone’s got the iPhone’s now. It’s part of our culture”, Varsity Spirit President Billy Seely tells the camera crew after being asked if iPhones are a concern at his elusive Cheerleading events. “I think that’s not as distractive as a big camera crew that’s runnin’ around behind the scenes”.

Although seeming an odd diversion from Cheer’s narrative at first, the point becomes evident as it is revealed that despite months of work, the Cheer documentary team would not be allowed to film the climax of the series: the goal they had aimed to film as the series highlight.

For most crews, this news would be a devastating blow and an almost unworkable scenario Yet for series director Whiteley and his team, this setback becomes one of the major strengths of the series, and a chance for the filmmakers to change the narrative away from Varsity Spirit’s cooperate message.

Directly following the interview with Seely, Cheer delves straight into their Daytona coverage with a notice beforehand to signal the unfortunate change of plan. Yet, to get around the Varsity Spirit’s ‘no camera crew’ rule, Whiteley makes full use of the cheerleaders’ proficiency with modern technology, allowing and encouraging them to flesh out the climax of the docu-series in their own words through the power of their mobile phones, ultimately making them members of the crew. This sequence begins with the cheerleaders themselves, who show us their Daytona – their ultimate collegiate highlight – in their own perspective. Jerry – Navarro favourite – is one of the first to appear as he hangs out of a window and vlogs his friends waving back at him from another room, before sticking his camera in the face of roommate LaDarius, who lives up to his outspoken reputation by telling Jerry to get out of his face. This is followed by a series of vlog style snippets, both by the cheerleaders themselves and ‘plants’ in the audience of the competition, who help to piece together the fragments of the event.

Growth of technology has allowed for people to capture footage at their fingertips. With 3.5 billion smart phone users worldwide and a whopping 4.78 billion – or 61.62% – of the population owning their own phones, it is easier than ever to record life’s daily antics, and people take full advantage of that. People are able to film on their own terms, in their own style, and record life in the way they want to.. Gupreet Mann notes in her novel, Storytelling in the Digital Age: People, communities and stories, that “people aren’t just consuming media but actually producing it”, and this is something Cheer takes full advantage of.

Famed online video platform YouTube has over 400 hours of content uploaded to the site a minute from people or ‘producers’ all over the world. Funnily enough, these producers often aren’t professionally trained but rather everyday people making use of their access to phones, computers, and other highly skilled but inexpensive equipment to become their very own filmmakers. After all, the first video on YouTube certainly isn’t Oscar worthy, yet Me at the zoo still has over 83 million views to date. As stated in the documentary, the majority of the Cheer cast have large social media following and are well versed in the inner-workings of social media posting; cheer-lebrity and Navarro flyer Gabi Butler has 1.1 million Instagram followers to date, showing some of the influence these cheerleaders have in the world of social media. With this in mind, it is easy to presume they are fluent in the language of social media.  

The Navarro Cheerleading team walk hand in hand together
Image Courtesy of Netflix (x)

Going back to Jerry’s opening sequence, his proficiency in social media language is evident. He oozes the charisma that has come to be expected of social media stars, and plants himself among the other vlog star legends who show their face on camera and capture life at it rawest. This isn’t to say that Jerry and the other cast are not playing up to the camera, they most certainly are (see: cast members making hearts to the camera as they head to the event), but it is a different performative style than we have seen throughout the documentary. Before, it was all work. The filmmakers are presumptively unknown to the cast and are there to capture the information they need and nothing else; they may develop a friendship but, ultimately, their relationship is on a business level. With the addition of the Cheer cast as the crew members themselves, the dynamic changes. The filmmakers are friends, colleagues and teammates. They are people that know them inside and out, and the ones they feel most comfortable with. The type of performance they’ll give is different: it’ll be for their friends and, to some extent, for their fans. It makes this sequence that whole bit more personal as, although they may still perform, they’re just that little bit more themselves as they moderate and record things of their own choosing. When Jerry moves the camera back to himself after joking with LaDarius, Jerry would have most likely expected LaDarius’ response, as his friend and roommate, yet it doesn’t feel sour; it feels like banter. Not only that, it gives us a true insight into how the pair act when not in the presence of a large camera crew, something that would only be seen on the likes of social media between friends and fans.

Furthermore, the low-quality footage, fast zooms, and coverage of anything and everything is synonymous with vlogging, and allows audiences to feel as if they, too, are a part of the event. For example, when an accident happens that cuts their initial Daytona performance short, we are shown footage of shadows on the floor as people run to the situation, a momentary lapse in the realisation of recording. Or when the Navarro Cheer team hit zero with their routine, several shots shake as audience members jump with excitement. It truly makes the audience feel like we are experiencing it right alongside the cheerleaders.

In this sequence, Cheer doesn’t aim for the cinematic, a juxtaposition to the rest of the superbly shot documentary. Instead, it faces the cards it’s been dealt head on and aims to capture the real moment, even if that does mean there is an occasional thumb over the camera lens. Cheer allows Daytona to be more than just the observation it had been up until this point, turning it into a participation between subject and crew that makes this docu-series much more personal. By letting them tell their own story, it breaks the fourth wall that documentarians aim to hide behind, making us realise that these cheerleaders are real people, Daytona was a real event, and this was something that really happened. It makes this sequence just that little bit more magical.

Ultimately, this sequence and the narrative belongs to the cheerleaders. This is their Daytona, and they want you to know it. They reclaim the narrative that Varsity Spirit stripped from them and make it entirely their own, whether it be mundane, exciting or downright weird. It may not be what the Cheer crew expected to come in the series’ overall run time, however what they did get adds more to the series than they initially may have intended, making for a series that feels a lot more personal than they ever could have imagined.