There’s been a lot of buzz about how politicized this year’s Academy Awards were, and how many higher-quality films were passed over or ignored in favor of those with better marketing. For the most part, this seems to have affected mostly the mass-market categories; the winner for Best Foreign Language Film — A Separation — more than deserves its accolades, but does the same hold for Best Documentary Feature? I haven’t seen all of them, but Undefeated does not disappoint as a winner.
The film follows the 2009 season of the Manassas High School football team and their volunteer coach, Bill Courtney. Manassas is in North Memphis, Tennessee, where the economy has been devastated since the Firestone plant shut down. Before Coach Bill showed up six seasons earlier the team had gone years without winning a single game, and they’d never won a playoff game in more than a century since the school was founded.
Out of the whole team we follow three players in particular. Senior O.C. Brown is one of the fastest 300-pound linebackers around; senior Montrail — “Money” — Brown is small for a tackle but he’s smart and makes it work through sheer determination; and junior Chavis Daniels is returning after a fifteen-month stint in a juvenile detention facility with some unresolved problems with anger management. The team may be improving, but they’ve got academics, injuries, and emotional issues looming between them and a winning season.
Besides these three, the rest of the players aren’t exactly living the life of Riley either. Coach Bill rattles off a list of difficulties — players dropped out, failed out, shot, arrested for shooting someone else — that would make an entire career rocky. These are just what he’s had to deal with since the beginning of the year.
Coach Bill is realistic, but sanguine about their chances. Over the last few years he’s built them up from the ground into the most talented team the school has ever fielded. Driven in part by his own father’s absence during his childhood, he seeks to engage with the team and give them something to aspire to beyond themselves. But he doesn’t see the sport as a cure-all; as he puts it, “football doesn’t build character; football reveals character.”
I am not the biggest sports fan in the world. When I see the lengths that some of the coaches and onlookers will go to help these struggling kids, I sympathize with those who decry this aid going to athletic stars instead of other worthy recipients, if only because the system is just not set up to recognize and reward many others. And yet I don’t begrudge these players the help they receive. It’s the storytelling abilities of directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin that allow even a critic of athletics’ outsized place in high school and college programs to engage with and cheer for these underdogs to overcome their challenges and bring their team to its first playoff victory.
And they do overcome. By the time they reach the climactic game it no longer really matters how the score turns out; in their own ways — and under Coach Bill’s guidance — O.C., Money, and Chavis have already won.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documntaries, fail.