Documented: Undefeated


When I was as sophomore in high school our football coach was prone to tears during pre and post game team talks. After our loss in the second round of the playoffs I remember us circled around him as the stadium thinned out and he began to choke up at the sacrifices we had all made. For the record I made very few sacrifices. I was an average player who was called up to the varsity for the playoffs not so much for my playing ability but because we needed warm bodies the starters could practice against. A senior on the team who was far cooler than I watched our coach start to well up as he described all we meant and had done, the senior interrupted and said, "Yeah coach, we know" and then headed for the showers. He's probably hanging dry wall or on a long haul drive right now but it was the the greatest coach speech moment I witnessed. 

Undefeated is full of such coach speech moments, to the point that you get tired of hearing the coach talk. At least I did. That's hard because he's the focal point of the movie. There are other story lines but he's the pivot. Undefeated is a documentary about the Memphis high school football team the Manassas Tigers. Manassas is an inner city school that has traditionally struggled on the grid iron, off the grid iron, just about everywhere. They have a volunteer coach, Bill Courtney, who has come in an attempted to turn their fortunes around. He apparently has some level of success and the team is apparently decent when the cameras show up, how decent is a mystery.

Manassas has a number of Division I prospects, and, according to the documentary, are fairly highly regarded by folks around Memphis. This is one flaw of the film...are these guys good? They do a hard sell on the underdog story but the team goes 9-1, winning 9 straight and beating teams rather easily. They don't appear to be underdogs. They appear to have obstacles, which is understandable, but then don't sell us a history of futility and make it seem like present tense. 

Ok I'm nit picking. It's a very good film. You will like it. Your wife will love it, just tell her it's the Blind Side but for real.

The film follows three players. One a Division I offensive lineman, one an overachieving academically gifted kid, and the last one who might considered a thug. Well he is a thug. The stories are well told and as they develop you really root for these kids. I would have liked to have known a little bit about some of the other players on the squad but hey it's a two hour movie.

Coach Courtney is an interesting guy. The documentary plays him as this no-nonsense, hard nosed coach with a heart of gold. He runs a wood flooring company and volunteers with the team along with a group of other men. Coach does love the speeches. The film sells the rescuing story of football for inner city kids. Their one track out of the mean streets. It's a very powerful narrative. Perhaps we can go back at some point and see how rescued these kids are, or, deep down, was this all about winning football games.

We've said before documentaries blend a story people want to see with an approach that tells that story well. Undefeated gets there, it won an Oscar for crying out loud. The story is interesting and the filmmakers don't trip over the material. Give me less coach and more kids and I'd be all in.

Posted on March 5, 2013 .