"A sports movie," is what you'll probably think right off the bat, most likely followed by "oh, a sports documentary, no less." And then, if you're like a lot of movie-watchers, you'll quietly put Undefeated back on your queue and watch something else -- and you'd be robbing yourself of a frankly fantastic piece of fact-based storytelling.
Or perhaps you're a hardcore movie fanatic who couldn't care less about organized sports -- but you know enough to realize the competitive sports, as a whole, lends itself remarkably well to the storytelling structure of cinema. Be it fact, fiction, or something in between, the "sports movie" has yielded an endless array of stories that allow us to celebrate the best parts of the human spirit. Documentary-wise, you can't do much better than Steve James' Hoop Dreams (1994), but somewhere right below that classic are titles like Dogtown and Z-Boys, Murderball, and the recently Oscar-nominated Undefeated.
Not much more than a straightforward story of a fantastic coach who takes a struggling high school football team and introduces the players to the concepts of teamwork, respect, and self-worth, Undefeated comes from directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (their last effort was a documentary about beer pong!) and it coasts through its almost two-hour running time on sheer force of plain old humanity. The real-life hero of the piece is coach Bill Courtney, an educator and mentor who offers nothing in the way of magic tricks or quick fixes. Nope, Coach Courtney is all about plain old hard work, sacrifice, cooperation, and respect. The man exhibits tough love, legitimate affection, and passionate commitment to his student athletes, and his plain, honest talk is clearly what inspires such loyalty.
Coach Courtney's Memphis high school team is a motley crew, but clearly a squad with a lot of heart and talent. If I told you that the Manassas Tigers aim to go from the historically WORST team in their region to a legitimate playoff contender, you'd start to dismiss Undefeated as some sort of manipulative documentary that wants to follow a format of Hollywood cliches, but the most powerful moments in Undefeated have very little to do with football: they're moments about unlucky kids who sometimes catch a break, hard-working kids who sometimes get left out, and ignorant kids who manage to learn important lessons about kindness and loyalty at their own speed.
Fans of gridiron melodrama will find a lot to enjoy in Undefeated. The Tigers' season is encapsulated in a swift two-hour framework that will doubtlessly appeal to those who enjoy the Friday Night Lights TV series, but that's not who we have to sell Undefeated to. Sports nuts will always find a good football documentary on their own. As entertaining a sports flick as Undefeated is, I believe it should be required viewing of anyone who is committed to becoming a teen athlete -- or a coach of one.
Undefeated is now playing in limited release in the U.S. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.