This review was originally published in March 2012 during the film’s North American theatrical run.
Cynics, please stop reading. Undefeated is not for you.
The film, which took home the “Best Documentary” Oscar last month, tells the story of the Manassas Tigers football team who are playing in the Memphis high-school (American) football league. They have never won a play-off game in their 110 year history and are blighted by ongoing problems with funding and team discipline. The term “under-dogs” doesn’t even start to describe these guys.
The man behind a new-found optimism is the team’s coach Bill Courtney, who owns a lumber yard and volunteers his time away from his family knowing that bringing sport into these young men’s live will stand to them as they enter into society.
The team has a number of strong characters but the documentary wisely hones in on three of the most promising. O.C. Brown is a huge guy who plays offensive guard and lives with his grandmother. He needs to receive extra tutoring from one of his teachers in order to bump up his GPA and make sure he secures the academic requirements of a college football scholarship. So, in a move akin to The Blind Side (sans Sandra Bullock), the teacher asks him to move across town (to the white people side basically) and spend some time living with him as a member of their family.
“Money” Brown is one of the team’s most reliable and solid performers who plays offensive lineman despite his small size. On paper he’s not good enough to get into college but isn’t short of self-belief and knows his importance to the team. But oh no, a potentially season-ending injury! How will Money cope?!
The last of the three musketeers on show is Chavis Daniels, the inside linebacker. Daniels missed the team’s pre-season run because he was in jail. He’s back in action now but still displaying all the signs of a troubled soul as he derides Money for being “gay” for hugging him, won’t get into Coach’s truck because he’s white and just generally acting like a real high-school douche-bag. But guess who becomes the catalyst for the Manassas Tigers as they start to win games for the first time in their recent history? A reformed Chavis.
The New York Times calls the team’s story “too feel-good for fiction“, and this sentiment certainly rings true. The comment isn’t meant as an insult, but it’s hard to stifle a smile as things start to turn around for these guys. If this were a drama we’d be deriding it for being too implausible. The documentary is emotionally manipulative and pulls shamelessly at your heart-strings as football and real life problems collide for these men. We shouldn’t really care about the play-off prospects of a Tennessee high-school team but it is nigh-on impossible not to care.
There are scenes akin to last year’s New York public school lottery cliffhanger (seriously) Waiting for Superman. This should be pretty mundane stuff, but when dealing with real people, the stakes become infinitely higher. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women just like Coach Courtney all across America who know that the school system sucks, the economy is gone to hell, no one is going to get a job without college and that there’s not a whole lot they can do for kids other than devote a few hours of their time to these kids.
The film debuted at last year’s SXSW festival and was picked up by The Weinstein Company. P Diddy of all people got involved with things last month and his input is likely to see a dramatic remake hitting screens in the future.
There were a lot of eyebrows raised when the Academy announced its documentary long-list last winter - including ours. Where was Senna? The Interrupters? Cave of Forgotten Dreams? Ultimately they got that part of the process wrong, but in rewarding Undefeated, it’s hard to argue that they didn’t make a good decision. I’ve always felt that the mark of a great documentary is something that will pull you into a real-life story and make you feel like you’re part of an unstoppable drama. Things may be too close to a fairy-tale for some (though *spoiler alert*, the title isn’t in any way accurate), but if you can leave all that cynicism at the door there is a great story to be told here.
USA / Directed By: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin / 113min / Documentary / Release: 2 March 2012 (US/Canada)