Watching a documentary filmed in real-time is always fascinating to me. Unlike a traditional doc that starts with an idea and involves months of planning, research, scheduling, and execution, a real-time doc feels much more adventurous; the filmmakers are just as unaware of what will happen next as the viewers. It requires a little luck, too. Picking a compelling subject for a traditional doc is one thing, but for something compelling to happen to a subject in a real-time doc is another thing entirely. Director Christy Garland hopes to capture some of that magic in Cheer Up.
The city of Rovaniemi, Finland is located at the Arctic Circle and, as one might expect, offers a stunning and picturesque winter landscape. But in addition to all that beautiful snow and cold, the city is home to the Ice Queens, a competitive cheerleading squad led by Coach Miia. The term “competitive” is as literal as it is generous, though. The squad technically competes at the Finnish National Qualifiers, but they are dreadful, even to the amateur eye. Tired of losing and tired of coaching a lackluster team, Miia seeks inspiration where nobody does cheerleading better: Dallas, Texas, USA. At Cheer Athletics, Miia visits with the staff and squads who put on a cheering (and coaching) clinic, producing the kind of results Miia could only dream about. Dazzled by the energy of the staff and the commitment of the cheerleaders, Miia returns home energized and ready to make some changes for—and to—the squad, until developments happen in her personal life that change the course of the team’s collective future.
In her third feature documentary, Christy Garland doesn’t simply cover the sad-sack exploits of the cheerless cheer squad. She also focuses her lens on the private lives of three individuals from the team: Coach Miia and two teenage cheerleaders, Aino and Patricia. On the surface, they are all unique. Aino is the raven-haired rebel, smoking behind the school and partying at night when she isn’t trying to land a flip. Patricia is the girl-next-door, but one garnering sympathy with a life marred by the loss of her mother. And Miia is the single woman whose obsession with Marilyn Monroe ranges from decorations on her walls to bleach-blonde hair and a “Monroe piercing” above her lip.
While these differences make the young women unique, and while cheerleading connects them, what bonds them (unbeknownst to them) are their fractured relationships with men and their sometimes staggeringly-poor life choices. Aino rushes to live with her immature boyfriend, Patricia is at stubborn odds with her father, and Miia’s man trouble defies even a veiled mention here for fear of revealing too much.
This is the kind of narrative that makes real-time documentary filmmaking so great—a director chooses a general topic that is unique, finds the smaller stories within the larger tale that might lead to something special, and pursues those stories. All of these components are present in Cheer Up, and yet the magic never quite happens.
Most of where Garland struggles is with trying to keep the story compelling. The monotony of the lives of these women seeps through the screen to turn the experience into a monotonous experience. This is no indictment of the women or their lives, but rather how they are presented on film. It’s as if Garland is concerned with being melodramatic, so she reigns everything in so tightly she creates something anti-dramatic. The result is observation to a fault.
Even the most structured and well-planned of documentaries need some kind of drama, so surely a real-time doc needs it too. Cheer Up doesn’t have it.
Garland also retreats from any kind of ongoing focus on the cheerleading aspect of the story, instead occasionally returning to it as a reminder that, oh yes, this is what these girls do. There are moments in practice when Miia pushes the girls harder, and there are moments when more than one girl loses a little blood in the process, but it’s all very rote in its revisitation. The lessons learned in life never translate to lessons learned in the gym, nor vice-versa.
Cheer Up is incredibly well-intended and has some good moments, particularly Sari Aaltonen’s cinematography. But with its flat presentation and dearth of any riveting moments, the film plays more like an after-school special about the pitfalls of teen decision-making than it does a documentary about young women struggling to make something more of their lives.