When you Google “cheerleading movies,” the top hits include the likes of Bring It On (and its four straight-to-DVD sequels), Sugar & Spice, Ninja Cheerleaders, and (no joke) Cheerleader Ninjas. When you Google “football movies,” the top hits include Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday, The Blind Side, and Rudy, just to mention a few. Why does the entertainment business see cheerleading as a sport that lends itself to comedy, while the world of football’s the idea place to set a drama? Does Hollywood believe that cheerleading isn’t serious enough to sustain a movie that isn’t tongue-in-cheek?
A new documentary called American Cheerleader might just help to change that.The documentary takes a very honest, straightforward look at two high school cheerleading squads—one in New Jersey and one in Kentucky—as they prepare mentally and physically for competition and, hopefully, find their way to nationals. New Jersey-based Burlington Township is returning to the game as the former National champions; Southwestern, the other school, made it to nationals the previous year, but suffered a heartbreaking defeat after one of the girls got dropped during their routine.
The story might not sound particularly compelling; who wants to watch a bunch of teenage girls worry about their hair and do a few flips for a panel of judges, right? But American Cheerleader presents a complete picture of the cheerleading world, from what the coaches have invested in the sport to what each score means. In fact, there’s nary a mention of sparkles or hairstyles. By the end of the film, as viewers wait to see if each team can stick their landing, watching the girls compete is nothing short of spellbinding.
And that’s what makes cheerleading so fascinating and worthy: There are no do-overs. When it comes to nationals—or any competition—the squads have just one chance to do their routine perfectly. That’s it. It’s a scenario practically built for edge-of-your-seat drama. In fact, if American Cheerleader proves anything, it’s that a good dramatic cheerleading film needs nothing more than a protagonist worth rooting for to be worth watching. Once the audience is invested, the sport itself will take care of the rest.
Combine that formula with the hours of hard work that come into play in preparation for nationals, and the film’s story practically writes itself. So when is Hollywood going to stop looking at cheerleading as something to scoff at? When will we stop writing scenes about girls putting Vaseline on their teeth—and start writing scenes about the gymnastic abilities necessary to complete a routine, or about the girl who’s spent a year trying to make up for the fact that she fell during last year’s national competition? What about the coach who put cheerleading before her marriage and is now working through a divorce?
Sure, flips and short skirts can easily make for comedy. But a sport in which one (literal) wrong step can ruin everything also deserves more.