Saturday, February 25, 2012
Undefeated Movie Review
Undefeated is a documentary of such surprising power and emotion I was left stunned in my tracks. I didn’t know anything about it before I walked in except that the poster indicated it was about football. If you want a similar experience to my own, then consider this a spoiler warning and stop reading now.
It tells the story of the Manassas High School football team in West Memphis, Tennessee, under the direction of volunteer coach Bill Courtney. I stress volunteer because the film is always careful to point out when the coaching staff involved donates their time to this horribly underfunded program in a city all but forgotten by the rest of the state. Not that any government has an obligation to fun sports programs in public schools. I understand completely the decisions that are made to cut programs for lack of funding even when those programs can be proven to give kids reasons to stay in school and make something of their lives.
Manassas High School is one of those urban schools where the students have to pass through metal detectors every morning. The students are severely underprivileged growing up in a town, we’re told, that once thrived on its industries that are now closed down. Most people have moved on leaving dilapidated and boarded-up homes. Like many kids in poor neighborhoods, the boys featured in Undefeated are almost all missing at least one parent.
Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin followed Courtney for the entirety of the 2009 season, his sixth as coach. In the 100 year history of Manassas H.S., the football team had never won a playoff game. The team has been known in recent years to serve as a punching bag for some of the best teams in the state who would pay several thousand dollars for them to travel for a pre-season scrimmage. Because Manassas was always beaten so badly, this left the team feeling discouraged and worthless going into their season. But at least they had money to fund their program.
Bill Courtney did away with all that by raising money for the team through charity. And his tough love approach to the boys is built on the idea that football doesn’t build character, it reveals it. He tries to teach his team that they need to give their all, maintain their composure under pressure and win or lose, be the better men. It sounds a lot like a Hollywood movie. I kept thinking all the time that it sounded almost identical to some feel-good sports movie you might see. But this is the real thing here.
We meet a number of players early on and their stories blend together at first, but then three young men begin to emerge as the central characters. There’s O.C. Brown. He’s a giant of a kid who plays left tackle. That’s the same position as Michael Oher, the subject of the feel-good sports weepy The Blind Side. Brown has serious academic problems and if he doesn’t get his grades up, he can’t play ball. There’s Montrail Brown (no relation). His dad died when he was 13 and he’s had a hard time of it. He knows he’s too small to have any hope of playing college football, but he wants to make the most of his time at Manassas. Finally there’s Chavis Daniels who rejoins the team after 15 months in a youth penitentiary. He has anger problems and routinely starts fights with his teammates, but Courtney can’t find it in him just yet to dump him. He works tirelessly to find the right approach to bring Chavis around.
Lindsay and Martin show us the early practices leading up to the first game. Manassas gets crushed and only one game into the season it feels like all is lost. We wonder how they can possibly bounce back. In their second game they stage a miraculous second half comeback to win after being down by an almost insurmountable margin. Then they win again, and again until they’re in real contention not only for a playoff spot but to win the district and secure home field advantage.
Meanwhile, the drama off the field continues to spiral. Courtney’s job doesn’t end at the sideline. He goes into the school and follows up on what his team is doing. When Montrail doesn’t go to school, Courtney wants to know why. When O.C. is failing subjects, coach Mike Ray takes him into his home so that tutors can get him up to speed. The tutors wouldn’t go into O.C.’s neighborhood.
This is a team that faces impossible odds, led by a devoted coach who recognizes the sacrifice that his family has made so that he can give these kids a shot at getting out of their situation. He’s got four school age kids of his own that he doesn’t like neglecting. But the boys on the team have only one real hope of doing something with their lives and that’s playing football.
As the film draws to a close there are such surprising developments that I won’t possibly reveal them, including how their season ends, which is itself one of the biggest shocks of the film. The stories of the three main boys moved me deeply. Although the whole project runs the risk of becoming a story of well-to-do white people patting themselves on the back for coming to the rescue of poor black kids (kind of like The Blind Side), Lindsay and Martin craft a film of exquisite beauty and great emotional uplift. They cleverly structure the whole thing like a fictional sports movie. It calls to mind so many sports films about down-and-out teams that make a miracle comeback. A lot of the movie is a function of some very good editing (it was cut by the directors) that builds the tension and drama perfectly.
I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that there was a scene near the end that brought the tears to my eyes. I was as surprised as anyone who knows me would be to hear that. I can’t remember the last time any film drew such a strong response from me, but here I was faced with a simple fact: this documentary got me good. In that respect it is entirely successful as a movie.