Undefeated presents itself as a look at a single season in the life of a striving high school football team in impoverished North Memphis, Tenn., but really it’s about so much more.
Like all memorable sports documentaries — and this Oscar-nominated film is definitely one of those — Undefeated is really an examination not of how games are won and lost but how lives are lived, how young people faced with daunting challenges come to see, often in the most dramatic fashion, what is important going forward and what is not.
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“If you think football builds character, it does not,” Bill Courtney, the volunteer coach central to the success of the film and the Manassas High School team shrewdly observes. “It reveals character.” And so it turns out to be. Not many minutes of screen time have passed before Manassas loses its first game of the season and we realize the title Undefeated is not going to be literal but metaphorical, the story of a team whose spirit could not be broken.
In a sense, Undefeated is a found documentary, a film that turned out not exactly as its creators, directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin and producer Rich Middlemas, had anticipated. Initially, the trio was attracted to the story of one of the team’s standout players, offensive tackle O.C. Brown, because it had parallels to the Blind Side career of Michael Oher that had resulted in an Oscar-winning motion picture.
Manassas High was certainly one of the least likely places for anything dramatic to be taking place. With its North Memphis location headed downhill economically since the closing of a local Firestone tire plant years before, the school hadn’t won so much as a single football game in more than 10 years and had never won a playoff game in its 110-year history.
This culture of impoverishment started to change, however, when the down-home charismatic Courtney started coaching, and his unique combination of candor and casual eloquence is a tonic to everyone who hears it.
A remarkable individual who never hides what he is feeling and has a real gift for honest speech, Courtney is determined, he tells his players, “to reach your hearts through something you love, to make you better.” His mantra is that “young men of character, discipline and commitment win in life,” and, by extension, in football as well.
That doesn’t mean the path is easy at a school like Manassas, and Undefeated opens with a talk by Courtney in which he details the trouble his guys have gotten into: players shot, arrested, in fights. “For most coaches that would be a career’s worth of crap,” he concludes. “It sums up the last two weeks for me.”
Undefeated succeeds as well as it does in part because co-directors Lindsay and Martin, who also served as cinematographers, sound recorders and editors, put in the time with the film’s participants, ultimately recording more than 500 hours of footage.
But as with many long-term documentaries, Undefeated also benefits from the unanticipated emotional moments that take place along the way. Because this is a real story in which things sometimes get worse not better, people become intractable, and the coach pays a personal price for his involvement, there is no anticipating what will happen at any given point. This is also a film in which the people on screen end up in emotional tears, and you may well feel like joining them.
Directors: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin.
Producers: Ed Cunningham, Seth Gordon, Daniel Lindsay, Rich Middlemas, Glen Zipper.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 115 minutes. Some language. Playing in Miami-Dade only: South Beach.