The bountifully-named “Arctic Circle Spirit Ice Queens” is the saddest cheerleading squad in Finland. Cheer Up, a new documentary by Canadian filmmaker Christy Garland, follows the members of the team as they slump their way through routines, sit dejectedly on gym mats during pep talks, and weep in frustration as their flips devolve into flops. “What can I say?” says the team’s coach, Miia, after a particularly uninspired practice. “You look like you’re at a funeral.”
The Ice Queens boast all the trappings of a quintessential American cheer squad: fluttery false lashes, sparkling eye shadow, brightly-colored crop tops and miniskirts. But try as they might, they just can’t seem to succeed. Their routines are always slightly out of sync, always a little clunky. Early on in the film, the team enters into the qualifying rounds for a large competition in Helsinki. Sixteen teams participated and there were 16 spots available — enough for everyone to move on to the next phase. And yet, the Ice Queens did not perform well enough qualify.
This sequence, like all of the fumbles portrayed in the film, toes the line between comedy and pathos. There are so many gaffes — wobbly knees, flailing bodies, bloody noses — that would be funny, were they not so depressingly real.
From the moment Garland learned about the beleaguered Ice Queens, she was fascinated. While at a party, Garland met a former professional cheerleader who said she had been consulting with “the saddest, most melancholy group of cheerleaders,” in Finland. “Right away, I’m like, ‘I really love that,’” Garland recalls.
The story of the Ice Queens was, in Garland’s mind, rife with delicious incongruities: cheerless cheerleaders, hard work leading nowhere, a beloved American pastime transplanted to a remote city on the cusp of the Arctic Circle. And in the process of exploring the journey of this team, Garland hoped to delve into broader questions of success, failure, and girlhood.
“I’d been wanting to make a film about young women and … the battles and inner life of young teenage girls as they navigate all the perils of being a teenager,” she explained. “[The subjects of the film] are sad cheerleaders. I thought that might be a really lovely metaphor for being a young woman, where you’re expected to look hot, and beautiful, and be nailing it … but on the inside, you’re a bit of a train wreck trying to keep it all together.”
To capture this tumultuous path to womanhood, Cheer Up hones in on three team members: Miia, Aino, and Patricia. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that each young woman is grappling with private sorrows. Patricia, still grieving her dead mother, is confronted with the news that her father is having a baby with his new girlfriend. Aino — the sore thumb of the squad, with her inky hair and persistently black wardrobe — leaves her childhood home to live with her boyfriend. Miia, already consumed by the failures of her team, is faced with a sudden life change.
Shot in verite style, Cheer Up is deliberate and gentle, lingering on its subjects’ expressions to convey their sadness and disappointment. At no point are their concerns treated as frivolous. “It was just really wonderful to hear how they really, really felt from the heart,” Garland said. “And [what they felt] was wise, and it was compassionate, and it was insightful, and it was all those things that we don’t see enough of when it comes to depictions of young women.”
Garland also sought to challenge prevailing conceptions of failure and provide an alternative to the universal underdog narrative, which inevitably sees hard work rewarded with trophies and accolades. Success in Cheer Up is more complicated. The film is primarily concerned not with competition, but with camaraderie; it delights in the little exchanges between cheerleaders, in the bonds that hold fast even as their routines veer into mild disasters.
“Awards are important and winning is important,” Garland said. “[But] the people who support you as you’re trying to achieve your goal are just as important, and [realizing that is] a big part of living a successful and happy life … You’re not a complete and utter failure if you don’t become exactly what you think you should be.”
Speaking to Women in the World from Finland, Miia, Aino and Patricia echoed this sentiment. They said that each practice was a challenge, an “adrenaline rush,” as Aino put it. Every toss and flip ???? regardless of how it landed — was a triumph, because it required the team members to push beyond the limits of their comfort.
“It doesn’t really matter if you win or lose at a competition,” Miia explained. “At every practice you have to win [by] doing something that might … be challenging, or really hard to do. It’s my role as a coach to convince someone to do something really scary. And when they do that, and they feel happy about it, then they succeed.”
“If you’re scared of doing something and then you do it, there’s nothing like it,” Patricia added. “The feeling is amazing.”
Cheer Up is currently screening at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. The film will have its European premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival and will have a theatrical premiere in France in mid-2016.