Enjoyably upbeat and intelligently inspiring, “Undefeated” is the sort of verite docu that can engage even folks who usually regard nonfiction features with the same enthusiasm that Superman displays when confronted with Kryptonite. With savvy handling by the Weinstein Co., which picked up the pic at the SXSW Film Festival, this fascinating study of a dedicated volunteer coach and his young football players at an inner-city Memphis high school could reach far beyond fest and arthouse circuits to attract ticketbuyers from multiple demographics, and score impressively in homevid playoffs.
It certainly doesn’t hurt its B.O. prospects that bits and pieces of this true-life drama echo elements in “The Blind Side,” the 2009 smash that was itself inspired by real events. At the same time, however, those who objected to that pic’s admiring depiction of a well-to-do white family’s nurturing of an at-risk black youth doubtless will find much to rankle their sensitivities here as well.
Coach Bill Courtney, a stout and hearty fellow who emerges as the pic’s star, displays boundless zeal, empathetic diplomacy and, when necessary, blunt-spoken authority in his quest to reverse the fortunes of the Manassas High School football team. Throughout the Memphis school’s 110-year history, no Manassas team ever has won a playoff game. Indeed, at one point not long before the period covered by “Undefeated,” other high schools in the state actually would pay to use the chronically maladroit Manassas Tigers more or less as tackling dummies in pre-season football games.
After six seasons, however, Courtney — a white businessman who owns and operates a lumber company — has begun to turn things around. His players, all of them African-American, have started to win games, and appear poised to make a run at playoff contention. Trouble is, some of the best players are impeded by financial hardships or family tragedies, and a few others — particularly one with serious anger-management problems — risk being suspended, or worse, before the 2009 season concludes.
Co-directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin focus primarily on three Tigers: Montrail “Money” Brown, an undersized but indefatigable offensive lineman who also excels as a scholar; Chavis Daniels, a quick-tempered young man, recently released from a youth penitentiary, whose self-destructive tendencies may make him a liability for the team; and O.C. Brown, an impressive right tackle who’s already attracting the interest of college scouts, but needs tutoring to improve his grades.
Brown’s story proves the most compelling, largely because of the young man’s charisma and his even-tempered responses to bad breaks as well as good fortune. To facilitate his access to tutors, he temporarily moves into the home of an assistant coach who lives in a tony East Memphis neighborhood. Brown is bemused by his new surroundings, especially when he notes early morning joggers. If he were to run through the streets of his own neighborhood, he says only half-jokingly, “They’d think I’d be running from the police.”
Courtney tries not to play favorites, and appears to care deeply about each of his players. Still, some, like Daniels, require more concern than others, and Courtney finds himself troubled by the possibility that while tending to his Tigers, he is neglecting his own young children.
Through their nimbly fluid videography and precise editing, Lindsay and Martin achieve a fly-on-the-wall intimacy that is remarkable even by cinema verite standards. Some scenes are unsettling in their emotional intensity, and at least one sequence, involving a grudge match between Manassas and a rival school, generates the suspense of a first-rate thriller. Other scenes percolate with robust humor, and the overall tone of optimism helps make the pic’s payoff at once bittersweet and exuberant.