Wednesday, March 14, 2012


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.
When we meet Courtney, he’s been the Tigers’ (volunteer) head coach for five years, improving on each of his passing seasons. His goal: to propel his team to win at least one playoff game, which would be the first in the school’s history. His tactic: intense motivation. Courtney tells it like it is – talking to his players with open, honest fervor.  He yells, he relates, he curses, he cries – all to better his players. Mind you, he isn’t attempting to shape excellent football players, his goal is to create men of character.

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+


  1. Whoa! Winner of Best Documentary, and it beat out Paradise Lost: Purgatory. It had to be good, right? Turns out it is. Can't wait to see it, man.

  2. @Andy Buckle One of my New Year's resolutions was to give movies that deserve an A+, an A+. This movie deserves an A+. It is remarkable.

  3. Really? I haven't seen it, and pretty much decided I wasn't going to bother. Now you've written this, I'm going to have to.

  4. I was about to say 'So, this is Coach Taylor in real life?' and you referred to it. Looks incredible.

  5. @Colin Really really, my man. Blew me right the hell away. Remarkable.

  6. @SDG It's Coach Taylor with a heart. Loved Kyle Chandler in that role, but that dude had no idea how NOT to be a hardass. Coach Courtney is a tad bit different.

  7. I've heard that this is amazing and now you've backed it up! Can't wait!

  8. Can't wait to see it. I never really thought about it, but your review has opened my eyes to the film. The second it comes out here I'll see it.

  9. @Tyler Awesome man, that really makes me feel like I'm doing something right. If I can drive people to see a movie they wouldn't have otherwise, then I'm happy. Enjoy it!

  10. Wow, from the praise here I am excited to catch Undefeated. I've never watched American football in my life, is the doc still worth a watch with that in mind?

    I glad you are NOT reviewing "THE Undefeated (2011)" , since that turkey got a 0% on RT, ha ha

  11. @Chris Dude, no one finds American football more boring than I do, and the mark of a great sports movie, to me, is one that can entertain people who love and loathe the sport both equally. Basically, no, you don't not have to be a fan of football to enjoy this film. Give it a watch!

    And you couldn't pay me to see The Undefeated. No way, no how.