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‘Cheer’ filmmakers get in the mix to document the interior grit of an elite squad

Navarro College cheer squad in action in the Netflix documentary "Cheer."
Navarro College cheer squad in action in the Netflix documentary “Cheer.”
(Netflix)

When the Netflix docuseries “Cheer” premiered earlier this year, turning the elite cheerleaders of Navarro College into insta-celebrities, the emotional power of the individual stories seemed to derive not only from their appeal as singular athletes but from the unique pressure of having so short a window to succeed.

“Cheer” director and creator Greg Whiteley, who spent more than three months filming the Texas community college’s preparations for the 2019 national championships, likens that blend of awe and ephemerality to the peculiar achievement ice sculptors seek. “They spend a tremendous amount of time, and it takes an incredible level of skill to get this thing exactly right, and it’s going to disappear,” says Whiteley. “I can only imagine what it would be like to be a genius in how you move your body through space, to spend your whole life honing this craft, and then at the tender age of 19, 20, 21, [think], ‘I’m done forever.’”

Whiteley’s bona fides filming student athletes come from multiple seasons directing Netflix’s popular college football docuseries “Last Chance U.” One afternoon for that show shooting a Mississippi university cheer squad’s “strangely intense” practice convinced him and producer Chelsea Yarnell that the flyers, tumblers, stunters and coaches of a top cheer outfit could make a great series. Though other shows had already spotlighted the hyper-energized sport, what Whiteley sought was the interior grit behind a routine’s outer spectacle.

“What we learned at ‘Last Chance U’ was you have to pick a small handful of people to focus on,” says Whiteley, who had “Cheer’s” core characters — insecure Morgan, outsider Lexi, superstar Gabi, ebullient Jerry and brash La’Darius — chosen by the end of the first shooting day. “We also knew that we wanted to be in very close proximity to the action, and that requires a lot of coordination with their team.”

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Trailer for Season 1 of Netflix’s “Cheer.”

With an observant team of camera operators and sound mixers, the production approached each day of gym filming less as invisible recorders than in-the-mix storytellers. Long lenses from a distance were required to safely capture the physicality of flying girls and the perspiring boys holding them up. But rather than allowing that same zoom-in technology to grab intimate exchanges between routines with their subjects unaware, the crew would move in closer, accepting the pitfall of possible playing to the camera and self-editing.

A third option, however, says Whiteley, was the sweet spot. “They could also say, ‘I see [the cameraperson] standing there, I know them, I trust them, so I’m going to allow them to be part of this conversation.’ I think you end up with an overall aesthetic with a warmth to it, because the audience has been invited in. You suddenly get access to a level of their humanity you would not get if you were a few hundred feet away” — moments he derides as “voyeuristic.” What Whiteley sees in “Cheer” is a visual style “simultaneously aggressive and poetic.”

Fan favorite Jerry Harris, who radiated optimism throughout, all but confirms that the filmmakers’ care in getting to know them made a deep impression. “Just them being really sweet helped me open up to them,” says Harris, who, when he eventually binge-watched the series the first night it was available, saw himself in the final product. “I was happy that I was portrayed the way I really am in real life.”

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Whiteley says Harris’ uplifting personality was notable from the outset. “It isn’t faked, and he’s not delusional,” says the director. “He’s fully conscious of how difficult the world can be. He just chooses to remain positive, and he wants that for everybody.”

Netflix docuseries ‘Cheer’ has turned the Navarro College cheerleaders and their no-nonsense coach into reality stars.

A laudable hallmark of “Cheer” was how often the show cut away to avoid showing a fall or injury. Though sometimes the camera simply missed it, often it was an editing choice built on discernment and trust.

“Sometimes you have to be careful about what you film,” says Whiteley. “I’d rather have someone open up to me about this thing that they’ve wrestled with their whole life versus capturing every physical moment I can, even if those moments might embarrass them.”

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The reward wasn’t only in securing fully rounded portraits of the young and gifted, struggling with hopes and wounds, but in grounding viewers’ resulting enthusiasm in inspiration, not judgment. Morgan Simianer, whose troubled childhood includes a stretch living alone in a trailer, has shared DMs with Whiteley that speak to that connection. “[Viewers] come to her and say, ‘The fact that you chose to be vulnerable enough to allow that portion of your story to be told has helped me.’”

In the end, Whiteley believes they showcased what he found so endearing — “the level of cohesion and trust and love and support they all have for one another,” he says. “It’s a critical ingredient to being able to pull off a championship routine. And what a great metaphor for stuff that happens off the mat as well.”

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