I have a tendency to do this very unproductive thing while watching a great film. As the movie progresses, I acknowledge its greatest and then immediately start picking it apart. In the case of the new documentary Undefeated, I spent a good amount of time attempting to convince myself that what I was seeing was enhanced in some way. That the story had been glossed over to make for better entertainment. That the filmmakers encouraged the participants to ham it up and be more colorful.
After a few minutes of this behavior, the film delivered a scene of such awesome emotional power that I was finally able to come to terms with the fact that what I was watching was real, and thereby, masterful. And through my tears, I prayed to the movie gods that Undefeated not end in disappointment. Seems as though someone listened.
Undefeated chronicles the reversal of fortune for an all-black West Memphis high school football team during one of their recent seasons. The Manassas Tigers are the butt of the joke, often running through their season without winning a single game. The school is located in an extremely impoverished area, and most of the team members come from poor, broken homes, leaving them angry and misguided. They fight, act out, get arrested – anything to get by. Enter Coach Bill Courtney, a rotund, middle-aged white guy who saw an opportunity to turn the Tigers from a worthless team to a forced to be reckoned with.
Now, Undefeated does indeed focus on the highs and lows of the Tigers’ football season, which you can fully enjoy without being a fan of the game. (And yes, not only are the football scenes, all shot from the sidelines, enthralling, but they are refreshing in their restraint.) But that’s not what I want to talk about.
What should drive you to see this film (and every single person should see this film) are the remarkably candid emotions it reveals. The film focuses primarily on Coach Courtney and three of his players: Money, the small player with a heart of gold (who also happens to test at genius levels), O.C., the superb athlete who can’t make the grades, and Chavis, an excellent player with the temper of a raging bull. The magic of this film is not what it captures on the field, but rather what it captures in the unbearably small living rooms of these three players, or in the crummy locker rooms that the team is forced to suit up in. The magic of Undefeated is its ability to capture teenage angst and triumph with such equal measure.
|Coach Courtney with Chavis|
There are three scenes in particular that make this one of the most gut wrenching films of recent memory. One involves Courtney sharing some extremely shocking news with Money, another involves two players who hate each other finally realizing how similar they are, and the final one is an extended embrace between Courtney and one of his players. Each of these scenes moved me to unexpected tears, the strength of which I have not been privy to in quite some time.
Make no mistake, Undefeated is not as celebratory as its title may suggest. Yes, there are moments of triumph, but this film is, at times, terribly sad in its honesty. It shies away from nothing.
I have no idea how or why directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin decided to start documenting the Tigers when they did. All’s I can say is, the power of cinema is bestowed on every single frame of their film. How they managed to capture it all is a great, mysterious wonder. Undefeated recently (and surprisingly) won the Oscar for Best Documentary (which, in hindsight, was the most deserving award given that evening). On the surface, Undefeated may be labeled as Friday Night Lights meets Hoop Dreams, but at its core, the movie is much more than that. It’s a film of unspeakable sincerity and unshakable power. To say it is one of the best documentaires I’ve seen in the past ten years is to do it a disservice, for Undefeated is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen, period. Essential viewing for anyone who gets moderate enjoyment from the cinematic medium. A+