Upon first glance, Canadian director Christy Garland’s third documentary, the Arctic Circle-set Cheer Up, might seem to be your traditional portrait of an underdog sports team, in this case a Finnish cheerleading squad that doesn’t want to, uh, finish last in competition yet again. What becomes clear quite quickly, though, is that this isn’t so much a film about competition and success after consistent failure — to paraphrase a song from Disney’s Hercules, the squad doesn’t exactly go from zero to hero over the course of the film. Rather, it’s instead concerned with the intimate stories behind the stunts and tumbles; about why this pursuit is so important for the young girls taking part, and what their devoted coach gets out of the experience.
As opposed to a team-wide portrait, Garland hones in on three individuals in particular: two young, one adult. Patu is attempting to adjust to her father’s new fiancé and a potential new sibling not long after her biological mother’s death. Aino, meanwhile, is trying to realise her identity and whether that is compatible with being part of a team.
The greatest narrative focus, and ultimately the most engaging strand, concerns coach Miia. She wants to push the team to its limits, and takes a trip to learn more from the best cheerleaders in Texas, where the girls will later take part in an international competition. Some of the advice from the award-winning coaches there doesn’t quite translate to her girls (start a drinking game for the film regarding all the on-screen or implied nosebleeds), however, and Miia herself is confronting a longing to share her life with someone special. While also working her day job as a stylist, she joins Tinder and pursues one particular man who seems very interested in her (“It’s so strange having a crush on someone I’ve never met”). They have a date that Miia thinks goes well, but then the guy starts getting cold feet, and that’s before the discovery of the unintended side effect of their in-person date — no spoilers, but ask your parents about the birds and the bees, kids.
Garland’s structure with the film’s construction is part observational documentary, part techniques used more with fiction features. So peppered throughout the (presumably) visually unembellished footage of the cheerleading practices and the women exploring their town are a couple of more ostentatious attempts at stylisation. During all of Miia’s courting, for example, Garland has bubbles of Tinder conversation excerpts appear on-screen, giving viewers a separate, text-based dialogue to follow every few minutes instead of having them listen to Miia audibly describe her rapport with this object of affection to someone else.
The film’s bookends, meanwhile, are shot in a slo-mo style and with a look that resembles traditional fiction features than documentary. The opening montage of the girls doing their thing is set to an also slowed-down version of Goldfrapp’s “Happiness,” the sound of which offers a pretty perfect entry point in light of the brisk film’s overall feel: a relaxed, ultimately optimistic offering that’s nice to simply luxuriate in for a short amount of time.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.