Directors T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay -- who have surprisingly only worked on a documentary short about beer pong -- give us the most powerful documentary of the year. Their debut feature documentary, Undefeated, details the struggles of an underdog high school football team in North Memphis, Tennessee. The film, which is almost like a real-life version of Friday Night Lights, premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival to a unanimously positive reaction in September.
Undefeated follows the unlikely rising team, The Manassas Tigers, and their relentless fight to win, guided by their goodhearted coach Bill Courtney. Courtney is a wealthy businessman that volunteers most of his time to training and consequently teaching inner city kids who, without football, would likely not have any other optimistic futures. The Manassas Tigers used to be the team that was given money by other teams to get their asses kicked by them, but in 2006, Courtney enlisted a talented group of freshmen to turn the team around. At first, every team demolished them. With intense encouragement and determination fueling from Courtney, the Tigers did not quit and kept on going. Now, those freshmen are seniors and they have one last chance to prove their worth and possibly get a hold of scholarships. Courtney has made a daunting goal for the team, and that is to win the first playoff game in the Manassas' 110-year history.
Lindsay and Martin follow these intriguing, exceptional kids, in their last year of hope at Manassas High. In an area of Memphis where kids are more likely to go to jail than college, your hope feels just as strong. Lindsay and Martin were smart enough to leap onto this incredible story at the beginning of the 2009 season, so we see Courtney's process from beginning to end. Courtney, who claimed at TIFF's screening that he was no therapist and just said what he thought was right, ends up changing the lives of the players on the Manassas team in a way he nor the audience could ever prepare for. He does not do this through the physical sport of football, but through his evocative speeches to his players that even affect members of the audience. After the opening scene of Courtney giving a passionate locker room speech, we are immediately gripped by the film.
After each game, with the stakes higher and higher for both Courtney and the players, we wholeheartedly back Courtney's goal for the team that becomes about so much more than winning and losing football games. As we deepen our attachment to these unstoppable people, the climax of the film will evoke a frightening amount of anticipation you didn't know you had in you and will have the theatre flooded with tears. The genius camerawork from Lindsay and Martin gives you that proximity to the characters that completely carries you away with the film. They follow Courtney and the players in such an up-close, candid way that you develop an incredible connection to a team you had never heard of before.
Without knowing anything about them two hours prior, you are left emotionally cheering for the Manassas Tigers when the film is finished. Undefeated is by far the most moving film of this year and the two hours you spend watching it will be the most affecting movie experience you've had in a while. Trust me, when it arrives in theatres, Undefeated must be at the top of your list.
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