Movie Review: Undefeated

One of the Oscar-nominated documentaries, Undefeated, sounds more dramatic and engrossing than it turns out to be: set in north Memphis, Tennessee, in the arena of inner-city high school football players during the chronically losing Manassas Tigers’ 2009 football season, a tough coach steps in to inspire the students to win the first playoff game in the high school’s 110-year history.

Critics are gushing over this real-life Blind Side-type picture and it’s easy to see why. The coach, a Christian named Bill Courtney who volunteered to coach the boys’ team, is very dedicated according both to this movie and to an interviewed newspaper reporter who, the press notes disclose while the film does not, wrote an article that inspired the film. But Coach Courtney is a mixed case for coaching and Undefeated raises questions about its approach.

From the start, Coach Courtney is a bit theatrical, telling the players that he will kill himself for the team. Exaggeration continues, which is fine for a coach who needs to stir his team to victory, but rigorous training does not, judging by what we see. Undefeated is less interested in the athletics of football than it is in proselytizing its themes of selflessness, forgiveness and sacrifice. Also, with no pretext to why this documentary was made, by whom, or in what context, the perspective is blurred; in one scene, a kid’s in trouble yet in the next scene, the coach finds out from another player and we’re left to wonder why facts and sequence were edited out. And with a coach at the center who apparently attends a religious camp called ManRise, takes public school kids to church and leads them in prayer with not a peep from anyone in a state where the Scopes trial took place, Coach Courtney probably violates the law and certainly grates on the nerves.

As Undefeated tracks three players, big lug tackle O.C., criminally-inclined linebacker Chavis, and a smaller kid called “Money” who plays offensive lineman, it’s easy to get into this story of a sad, poor team and its feisty coach who preaches that character counts. We want to root for the kids, see them win and we’re so invested in their tales and troubles that we start to forget it’s a movie. Supposedly a documentary, though important action happens offscreen, as when Chavis assaults another player but not before the screen goes blank for no apparent reason, and Undefeated ultimately feels as real and authentic as so-called reality television. That’s not to say it’s without value, and I’m glad these kids apparently learned something and did well. But between references to “haves and have-nots” and fairy tale endings where anonymous rich people pay for an entire college education and thugs turn into humble servants, I noticed that preachy Coach Courtney never had time for his wife and kids, which he eventually admits, and that for all his preaching he sets a poor example as a father.

All of which is a shame because how schools conduct sports is a serious issue that deserves a serious documentary. We are currently plagued with news about concussions in football players (which never comes up here) and what may be a link to a form of encephalitis, sex abuse scandals and arrests at Penn State, Syracuse and the Amateur Athletic Union (whose director was fired after he was accused of abuse by former basketball players during his youth sports work in Memphis). Instead, Undefeated offers prayers, bromides and slogans, like an episode of Huckabee without the fiddlers, banjo playing and aw shucks grins.

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