There is no shortage of crying in Netflix’s smash hit reality series Cheer. The Navarro College cheerleaders fall from great heights while practicing the pyramid, feel overwhelmed by the pressure to perform, and share painful memories from their childhoods, all setting the stage for a climactic performance at the National Championships in Daytona.
But the most powerful tears come from someone who isn’t on the team. They fall from the eyes of Antonio Marshall, the brother of La’Darius Marshall, one of the Navarro squad’s star athletes. Early on in the series, La’Darius shares the traumatic story of how his brothers used to beat him up and call him “fruity” for his participation in the sport.
Yet a few years later, here his brother sits, live-streaming the Navarro victory on his phone, tears rolling down his cheeks. As I watched, they rolled down mine as well.
We are living in a strange and emotional moment. The coronavirus pandemic is sweeping the globe and many of us find ourselves displaced from our normal rhythms of life. We naturally turn to media like Netflix in our search for meaning or a few moments of escape. At its best, Cheer provides us with both.
There is a curiously spiritual undercurrent running throughout the documentary. Monica Aldama, the fourteen-time National Champion coach and heartbeat of Cheer, speaks candidly about her belief that she is living out a calling in her work. The team shouts the Serenity Prayer as part of its warm-up ritual before Daytona. More than one cheerleader describes the sport as having “saved” them from various childhood traumas.
All of this is fascinating and worthy of unpacking but it doesn’t address the real power of Cheer. What makes this story so compelling? Why do so many people watch and, even jokingly, voice a desire to move to rural Texas to join the squad?
I believe it is because Cheer shows us a beautiful picture of what a church could be in the world.
A Clear-Yet-Impossible Dream
One of the basic rules of storytelling is that a protagonist needs a goal—something they clearly want to achieve. The audience should know almost immediately what the goal is and the stakes involved in reaching it.
Cheer leaves no doubt as to what its protagonists desire. Seven minutes into the first episode, we are introduced to the National Cheerleading Championships where the best squads compete against each other every year. From that point forward, time is marked in the series by how many days are left until Daytona.
Everything in the cheerleaders’ lives, including even their physical health, is weighed against the prize. A national championship is the only goal and classes, grades, and families must fall in line. There is only Daytona.
It’s a compelling dream precisely because it’s so unlikely. Navarro is a two-year school. In Aldama’s more than two decades of coaching, five of her squads won not just their junior college division but the Grand National Championship as well, meaning they had the highest overall score of any team competing, including many four-year universities.
Some of my most formative experiences in Christian community have been marked by similarly clear-yet-impossible dreams: to see every third grader in an elementary school improve one grade level in their reading, to show radical hospitality to every international student on campus, to see miraculous healing for a friend suffering from chronic pain.
It was the everyday living into these hoped-for realities, even when we didn’t ultimately achieve the goal, which profoundly transformed my understanding of Jesus and my love for the community.
A Diverse Team of Misfits
Lexi Brumback, a star tumbler, speaks candidly in the first episode about what her life would have been like without Navarro: “I’d probably be in a jail cell somewhere.” Morgan Simianer, another standout from the series, relates the painful history of raising herself in a trailer after being abandoned by her biological parents.
A consistent theme of previous isolation runs through the personal narratives of the cheerleaders. Even Gabi Butler, the most famous cheerleader on the team, seems to exist in a peerless world occupied only by her parents’ constant management of her celebrity and schedule. They finally find a taste of belonging in Navarro.
Each athlete also brings a unique skill to the team. From tumblers flipping across the mat to flyers soaring overhead to the bases and spotters catching and supporting them, teams dazzle audiences with the sheer complexity of individuals hitting their marks and the beauty of the broader picture coming together. When Navarro landed their pyramid flawlessly at Daytona, I realized I had been holding my breath; it was a cathartic, exhilarating experience to behold.
This image is similar to the one Peter uses to describe what a Christian community should be: “. . . you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Where better for the lonely and forgotten to find a place to sacrificially exercise their gifts than among the people of God?
A church, at its best, should be the place where every person becomes more of who they were designed to be and, at the same time, finds where their piece fits in the broader mosaic of God’s redemptive work in the world.
A Persistent Developer of People
I was initially skeptical about the documentary. I don’t usually enjoy reality TV and the handful of intentionally cringe-worthy moments in the first episode almost did me in (watching preschool girls in makeup fawn over the “cheer-lebrities” from Navarro comes to mind).
Every time I wanted to turn it off, watching Monica Aldama coach her team brought me back into the fold.
Cheer is her master class on developing people. What particularly caught my eye was her intuitive ability to shift tactics depending on the person she was coaching. For La’Darius Marshall, who can be arrogant at times, she initiates a direct, public confrontation. For Morgan Simianer, insecure in her performance but desperate to please, she pulls her aside and speaks to her like an encouraging mother.
One of my favorite coaching moments happens in the final minute of the series. It’s tryout day for the next season and a new crop of cheerleaders are vying for a spot on the squad. Kapena Kea, the student assistant coach, offers some critical feedback for one of them after she finishes her routine.
“Something we can work on later!” Aldama interrupts, with a laugh. We see her turn quietly to Kea and say, “Those are things we teach later—we are looking for potential,” before turning back to the girl and calling out, “Do it again!”
Don’t we all long for leaders like this in our lives—those who see us not in terms of who we are today but in terms of what we could be and are willing to push us to get there?
A healthy, lasting church needs developers who see the potential latent in each person and fight in whatever way is needed to see it come to fruition. Without them, the community will wither in a generation, failing to see the lasting impact that was within its reach.
A Blessing to the Broader Context
One of the biggest questions I had upon finishing Cheer was, “Is cheerleading at this level good for the world?”
By the end, we have seen six hours of collegiate athletes destroying their bodies and neglecting their classes year-round for a roughly two-minute annual performance. There are questions surrounding the monopolizing tendencies of the Varsity Cheerleading corporation that dominates the sport. We hear interviews with several former cheerleaders that seem stuck in the memories of their past glory, wrestling to move on with life after Daytona.
I felt conflicted at various points in the series, imagining the conversations with my own young daughters if they decided to pursue something as involved and invasive at some point in the future.
But, then I remember Antonio Marshall, tearfully watching his brother win a national championship on a tiny iPhone screen. I wonder what their next conversation was like after Daytona. Is it possible that they have reconciled, even in small ways, over this shared experience?
In the book of Acts, Luke mentions that the early church enjoyed “. . . the favor of all the people” and was “highly regarded” by outsiders. Though they often endured persecution, it seems these early Christians also encountered genuine fascination and people willing to turn their lives upside down to join such a community. We see jailers being baptized by their inmates and wealthy business owners selling their possessions to live in solidarity with the poor.
If an annual cheerleading competition could bring two brothers together, imagine what the Lord could do with a ragtag handful of misfits dedicated to their neighborhoods, chasing the seemingly impossible dream of seeing some little corner of the world look more like the Kingdom of God. May it be in my city and in the church as it is on Cheer.
Cover image by Alexander Krivitskiy.