The winner of this year's Oscar for best documentary, Undefeated, is a thoroughly conventional inspirational sports documentary with more than a passing resemblance to the 2009 Sandra Bullock hit, The Blind Side.
The earlier movie was based on Michael Lewis's non-fiction account of a Tennessee family that went to unusual lengths to help a gifted black high-school athlete and eventual National Football League player, Michael Oher, to overcome a rough upbringing.
Undefeated, set in a different city in the same state, follows Bill Courtney, a pudgy, middle-aged, devoted volunteer coach of the football program at Manassas High School.
The story of the underdog Manassas Tigers is almost absurdly bleak. The school is set in a North Memphis neighbourhood ravaged by poverty since the closing of the nearby Firestone factory some years before. Few of the kids on the team have a parent who went to college, but most have a friend or relative who has done jail time.
In the school's 110-year history, the football team had never made the playoffs. One teacher says she can't remember a single victory in the last "10 to 14 years." Without the kind of wealthy booster clubs that support other high-school teams, the Tigers earn money by serving as scrimmage opponents, getting beaten up in practice by better-funded teams from larger schools.
The film follows the sixth season since Courtney, a local hardwood salesman, decided to take over the program. In that time, he has managed to raise some money to support the team and has assembled a core of talented seniors who have a chance of turning things around. The film singles out three of the boys with promising dramatic arcs: O.C. Brown is a giant offensive tackle with multiple offers pouring in from colleges even though his grades may ruin his chances. Only when a white assistant coach brings him into his home to get extra tutoring does Brown pull his marks up.
His fellow offensive tackle, Montrail (Money) Brown, is an undersized but academically strong player who wants to go to college but can't afford it. Finally there's Chavis Daniels, a defensive lineman with anger-management issues, who has lost a year in juvenile detention and is struggling to get his life back on track.
Like Steve James's basketball documentary Hoop Dreams (1994), Undefeated is about the long-shot chance of athletic ability carrying an underprivileged kid out of poverty. Unlike Hoop Dreams, this new film is mostly about the coach. Courtney's a natural showman and it seems easy enough to let him do most of the talking here (some of the boys' accents are so strong that the film uses subtitles).
And though his life isn't as rough as his players', Courtney has his own issues. A father of four, he worries that he is too obsessed with his team and isn't spending enough time with his own children, because his own father was absent. Yet he's determined to give his players a tough-love foundation, festooned with inspirational messages: "Football doesn't build character, it reveals character," he opines as if he just thought of it. Or, in a similar vein, he declares: "The character of a man is not measured in how he handles his wins, but what he does with his failures."
Well, sometimes clichés work: They obviously do for Courtney's team over the course of that senior season, and, to some degree, they work for the film as a whole. The underdogs face adversity – a failed exam, a torn ligament, a violent altercation – but prove themselves strong in the film's second half. There's no Hail Mary victory, but there are lots of teary-eyed moments and life-lessons learned.
What's frustrating about Undefeated is the dearth of social context beyond the images of the neighbourhood's run-down homes viewed from a passing car. There are no serious questions about a bizarre system in which a kid is marginally more likely to qualify for a post-secondary education for being big than for being smart. Compared to many of last year's documentaries ( Pina, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Cave of Forgotten Dreams or The Interrupters), this film is distinctly minor league. But it does provide the thumbs-up emotional lift of a bumper-sticker message on game day.
- Directed by Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin
- Classification: PG
- 2.5 stars