An Oscar nominee as best documentary, Undefeated is a sports film that's less about football than it is about a coach, his players and the journey they take together. And it's a terrific trip.
Their team is the Manassas Tigers, a high school football squad in North Memphis, in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. The coach is Bill Courtney, who owns a hardwood-flooring business and has served as Manassas' head football coach for six years on a volunteer basis.
The film picks him up as fall practice begins for the 2009 season and prospects aren't great. Manassas hasn't had a winning season in years and has never won a playoff game. They are doormats in their conference, their division and their state.
But Courtney is ever the optimist -- and he's feeling good about this season for practical reasons. He's got a core of seniors who have been playing together and practicing with him since they were in eighth grade. One of his potentially best players is out of juvie and back in school. And one of his stars is being scouted by major colleges
Still, his challenge remains: He has to build a team out of a group of individuals who come from, at best, trying circumstances, dealing with poverty, absent parents and their own behavior problems as obstacles.
Courtney is less interested in winning -- though he wants to win -- than in getting his players to think as a team. Football doesn't build character, he tells the camera at one point: "It reveals character."
So he does what he can for O.C. Brown, the college prospect, whose talents on the field are, unfortunately, not matched by classroom skills. Much like Michael Oher in The Blind Side, he goes to live with one of the coaches' families so he can be tutored to do better in class and get a passing score on the ACT, so he can go to college.
Courtney is also involved with Montrail "Money" Brown, a player with great grades and a lot of heart on the field -- who suffers what seems to be a season-ending injury to his knee. Suddenly, Courtney's job is to be both stern parent and cheerleader to Montrail, when he stops going to school in despair about his condition.
Finally, there's Chavis Daniels, the kid just out of jail. A hair-trigger personality with impulse-control issues, he earns a suspension from the team for fighting with teammates. The team is bigger than one player, Courtney tells his squad, even as he works with Chavis to try to get his life back in line.
Courtney isn't a saint, but he's the modern urban equivalent of an angel, if you will. Abandoned by his own father as a kid, he understands the negative feelings his players harbor at being in a similar situation - and how easily that can turn into the kind of behavior that derails a young life.
Filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin cover the games, but the movie isn't about winning and losing individual contests or titles. Instead, it's about the daily battle just to show up and succeed at life, as filtered through the prism of the football program.
Undefeated offers an example of those who have helping those who don't and everybody winning. That's not socialism; it's just the social contract.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.