Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin's social sports fable about the highs and lows of college football takes its place proudly alongside the best in the genre.
Traversing some of the same ground as Kristopher Belman’s More Than a Game and Steve James’ Hoop Dreams – and with an unmistakable hint of Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights – Undefeated appears at first glance to be just another generic social sports fable.
But as directors Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin embed themselves in the lives of the Manassas Tigers football team in a broken down district of Memphis, Tennessee, it emerges instead as a drama entirely unto itself.
For six years, Coach Bill Courtney has preached character, commitment and sacrifice. It’s a tough sell in a community blighted by crime and recession, to kids who can’t see a future beyond the horizons of high school. But little by little, Courtney has transformed the Tigers into a winning team, leading them to their first ever play-off season.
And yet this is only half the story. While the sporting drama sets the framework, it’s the human narrative that lends Undefeated such heart and soul. Lindsay and Martin focus on four key players. There’s Courtney, of course, the cussed, articulate patriarch who sacrifices his own family for these found-sons.
OC Brown is a hulking tackle whose college scholarship is put at risk by poor grades. He’s tutored at a coach’s home in a rich white suburb, crossing Manassas’ racial divide symbolically but uneasily. Chavis is the archetypal troubled youth whose personal journey is one of the film’s most compelling. But it’s Montrail ‘Money’ Brown who really anchors the show. A sensitive, intelligent young man injured halfway through the season, his struggles and redemption are pure Hollywood ending.
That’s the thing about American football – it’s uncanny propensity for drama. This unlikely season of last-minute turnarounds and personal transformations is tailor-made for cinema; for montage, dramatic close-up and steady observation, all of which are deployed by Lindsay and Martin, alongside an effervescent ghetto gospel soundtrack.
Undefeated, then, is both the film you suspect it might be and something else entirely. The clue is in the title. "Anybody can be a winner," says Coach Courtney. "It’s how you respond to failure that makes you a man." To corrupt another of his favourite phrases – watching Undefeated won’t build character; but it will reveal it.
Looks niche, but suckers for sports docs have been getting excited about this one.
Subtle, surprising and, at its best, revelatory.
Can take its place proudly alongside the best in the genre.