You can't help but root for this teamBy Ann Hornaday
Friday, Mar. 2, 2012
The rousing high school football documentary "Undefeated" won the Oscar just the other day, and it's easy to see why. A come-from-behind urban tale of hardscrabble teens and the men who believe in them, this stirring portrait of compassion and grit follows the classic contours of similar stories that have gone before it, while delivering emotional wallops all its own.
"Undefeated" follows a year in the life of the Manassas Tigers, the football team of a high school in the impoverished community of North Memphis, Tenn. Financially under-resourced, psychically whipped and physically battered after renting themselves out for richer teams to practice on, the Tigers are going into the 2009-10 season with only one advantage: Coach Bill Courtney, the prosperous owner of a nearby custom lumber company who for the past several years has volunteered to whip the Tigers into fighting trim - and just maybe change a few young men's lives along the way.
As filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin compulsively follow every practice, game, pep talk and dressing-down, they narrow their focus to three players in particular: a small, overachieving offensive lineman named Montrail, nicknamed Money; a hulking hothead named Chavis (whom we meet just as he's getting out of a juvenile penitentiary) and O.C., a gentle giant of a left tackle whose poor grades threaten to disqualify him from receiving the college scholarships he so desperately needs to get out of North Memphis.
And make no mistake: Getting out of North Memphis is the overriding goal of the poor, African American students whose survival strategies in their blighted neighborhood seem limited to snarling aggression or self-deceptive striving. Enter Coach Courtney, who motivates his charges with equal parts tough love and surrogate-parental outrage, peppering his come-to-Jesus speeches with occasional, well-placed profanities. "People always say that football builds character, which it does not," he explains early in the film. "Football reveals character."
Courtney's words come true in "Undefeated," which unfolds with such drama and high emotional stakes that it sometimes evokes a big-time Hollywood movie. When O.C. moves in with Courtney's assistant coach in order to be tutored in math - temporarily trading the tiny house he shares with his grandmother for a huge home on Memphis's manicured East side - it's impossible not to recall "The Blind Side." (Both coaches are white; their players are all African American.) For his part, Courtney evokes the great coaches of pop culture's past, from "Varsity Blues" to "Friday Night Lights."
It turns out that Courtney's players aren't the only ones grappling with profound loss in "Undefeated," which skillfully threads viewers through the Tigers' amazing season as it leads its protagonists to their crucial year-end decisions. Absorbing, inspiring and terrifically entertaining, "Undefeated" earns its title: It's a winner all the way.
Contains some profanity.