“Undefeated” won the Oscar for best documentary on Sunday, and today it begins a nationwide rollout.
Imagine “Hoop Dreams” mixed with “Facing the Giants.” Or “Remember the Titans” with a dash of “The Rookie.” Or “The Blind Side” with … You get the idea.
“Undefeated,” about the Manassas (Memphis) High School football team’s 2009 season, begins with one of the classic moments in team sports: the coach’s heart-to-heart with the team. This one isn’t pleasant.
Coach Bill Courtney is recounting the mess/trouble his players have gotten into. It’s a locker-room moment, but it’s not about sports; it’s about life.
So goes the best of sports movies. It’s about how athletic competition atomizes a life in a day, a week, a year. It’s about the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.
Or to quote Coach Courtney using a cliché: “Football doesn’t build character. It reveals character.”
The best tropes of the sports-movie genre are all here: underdog status, academic eligibility, injury, rivalry, training montage, family strain.
And this documentary from directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin offers as much emotional punch as any fictitious feature film of the genre.
Of course, it’s no coincidence that many of the feature films in this field are themselves based on true stories (see some of the above list and add “Glory Road,” “Miracle,” “Chariots of Fire”). Such is the ingrained nature of sport in American life and entertainment.
The main character in “Undefeated” is Courtney, the school’s volunteer coach, who has four kids of his own and runs a hardwood company.
He functions as much as a streetwise psychologist, therapist and surrogate father as a coach.
Manassas has been losing for a decade, and in the school’s 100-year-plus history, it’s never won a playoff game.
Courtney wants to change that – and he wants to change the options for his players after they finish high school.
Only a few players have a parent with a college education. No one has two college-educated parents. Almost all have family and close friends who have been behind bars.
Courtney is a piece of work – almost like a character portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He screams and consoles. He inspires and gets down to business. And he does all that in 20 seconds.
“I had to come off the hook three times yesterday,” Courtney says, clearly as aware of his own emotional trajectory as he is that of his players. “I had to cuss way too much. I have to go home and pray for forgiveness for the way I talk to these young guys, and I don’t want to be driven there again.”
Three students garner most of the players’ screen time.
There’s O.C. Brown, a tackle that squashes opponents like bugs but who needs better grades for a scholarship offer.
Montrail “Money” has a 3.8 GPA. He’s small for a lineman but says, “I feel like a giant.”
And then there’s the talented Chavis, on and off the team for disciplinary reasons.
“Undefeated” works because it’s emotionally engaging, because at the heart of it is Courtney’s exasperated question: “At what point do you quit trying?”
Of course, that applies to everything: football, family, grades, passion projects. And, of course, the answer is you don’t. You don’t quit trying.
The film skips a voiceover for a few title cards, and it sprinkles brief interviews with other coaches and teachers into the action.
As for the football action, it’s captured and cut well. One of the documentary’s strengths is its rhythmic sensibility. It doesn’t necessarily break new ground in assembling footage, but its approach is polished.
In one of the most poignant scenes, Money talks about his favorite turtle and remarks that turtles are a lot like people: hard on the outside, soft on the inside.
That’s true for Money, even for Coach Courtney. The filmmakers exploit that truth in “Undefeated,” and the result is, now, an Oscar-winning film.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language.
Directors: Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin
Cast: Bill Courtney, Chavis, Montrail “Money,” O.C. Brown
The movie’s website is here.