Undefeated - SideReel Review
Everyone jokes about the list of movies that are considered safe for guys to cry during -- the original Brian’s Song, Old Yeller, and Saving Private Ryan spring to mind immediately. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s engrossing documentary Undefeated deserves to be on the list.
The movie follows one season of football at Manassas High School. The North Memphis public school is in an economically depressed area; there’s very little funding for the education system in general, and practically none at all for extracurricular sports. In spite of that, local businessman Bill Courtney, whose dream was to coach football, began volunteering his services at the program. Six years later, he’s become the head coach and has helped develop the most talented group of kids he’s ever had, many of them going into their senior year.
All of this sounds like the stuff of cliches, and that feeling is compounded when we learn about the sad history of Manassas football -- the team has traditionally been an easy win for other schools, and in their 100-year history they’ve never won a play-off game. Courtney believes that this is the year that can change.
It’s easy to romanticize football coaches, to believe they’re no-nonsense, tough-talking drill sergeants who instill the sort of pride, commitment, and toughness that leads to gridiron glory. Courtney embodies that tradition, but he makes it clear his goal is to be a teacher first and not solely concentrate on football. Early in the film, he explains that character builds a winning football team, but that football does not build character. That may sound dreamy, but he practices what he preaches, and although he’s capable of being blustery, he proves time and again that he genuinely loves his players.
We closely follow the effect he has on three of the students on his squad. His best player is O.C., an unexpectedly speedy offensive lineman who is headed for a college scholarship as long as he can maintain his grades. Then there’s Money, an undersized lineman who, through sheer tenacity, can get the better of much bigger opponents. He knows he’s too small to play college ball, and his hopes for finishing his playing career at Manassas are threatened by a knee injury. Lastly, there’s Chavis, a troubled kid returning to the program for his junior year after spending the previous season in a juvenile detention center. We’re told he has real anger issues, and it takes no time at all to see that’s true. He quickly gets into confrontations with various teammates, and watching the put-upon Courtney get through to this kid is genuinely inspiring. And the payoff scene -- in which the stories of two of these players converge -- transcends the easy cliches of a sports film and actually offers a profound yet understated example of grace and humility.
Until the final 20 minutes, Undefeated studiously avoids being about winning a game. Sure, the individual Friday nights bring interesting on-field storylines, but the movie is really about the changes these three kids, and finally Courtney himself, undergo during the course of three months, and how these experiences will hopefully help them each define for themselves who they are for the rest of their lives. And for that last 20 minutes, you will want to see this squad of young men succeed and will want to believe that Courtney’s resolute faith in the motto that success follows hard work and self-sacrifice is true. It turns out that it is, but just not in the ways we expect.