With Last Chance U (2016-), Greg Whiteley emulated Ken Burns and followed the stories of junior college footballers through the eyes of the protagonists. The result was five, binge-worthy documentary series about American football that appealed to audiences not in the least bit interested in the sport.
And like Last Chance U, his new series threatens to give reality TV a good name.
Here, Whiteley approaches an even more apparently uninteresting sport – college cheerleading competitions that culminate in a two-minute fifteen-second routine in a bandshell at Daytona Beach, Florida (think Gold Coast, Queensland).
Apart from the usual production issues, Whiteley faced a real doozy – something called Varsity TV owns the rights to the Daytona Beach broadcast and won’t let him film it. So, after 330 minutes of gripping lead-up, Whiteley is forced to resort to footage shot from multiple iPhones spread around the stage. It matters little as the iPhones capture not only all the action but provide an element of spectator immersion.
Like Last Chance U, his characters are uniformly fascinating. There’s a jolly, gigantic-hearted, large African-America lad, adopted by a white Southern family, whose main task is hold up the girl “flyers” and catch them after they are catapulted into an acrobatic spin through the air. There’s the sweet, petite flyer from a broken, dysfunctional home, raised by her grandparents, and battling an enormous inferiority complex. There’s a handsome, athletic, gay African-American boy, also from a broken family - - his mother was in jail - raised by a surrogate, bullied through his childhood and sexually abused. There’s a version of a Houston street kid, her adolescence peppered with run-ins with the law and who despite her laidback demeanor, has a problem with violence. And the most experienced and privileged member of the squad has almost a million followers on social media…
Around them are equally interesting support staff and coaches, lorded over by “The Queen”, a woman with serious business training who gave it all up to coach her “kids” at Navarro College, Texas and who has, thus far, won them 13 championships at the Daytona Beach competition.
What finally drives Cheer is the quest for transcendence; the belief in the sublime perfection of those two-minute fifteen-seconds. They are on an acrobatic crusade to propel themselves from their troubled adolescences: a transformation to make them new people in a new world.