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Undefeated, the Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, is the Louder Than a Bomb of high school football, a look at how an extracurricular activity can elevate students above their inner-city trappings and offer them a glimpse of their potential. Here, coach Bill Courtney is the central hero, having volunteered at Tennessee’s Manassas High School for six years and having little to show for it except a neglected family and, likely, rising blood pressure.
Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin make clear that Courtney’s competition throughout his coaching career wasn’t so much other teams—though the Tigers’ track record was pathetic—as it was injuries, bad grades, and bad attitudes. One of his players, Chavis, spent 15 months in a youth penitentiary and still makes trouble with other team members when he gets out. Another, O.C., has terrible grades and gets to go all Blind Side, living with an assistant coach a few days a week while being tutored. Montrail, aka “Money,” gets sidelined with a knee injury toward the end of the season his senior year.
You get the sense that coaching the Tigers is like herding cats, yet Courtney remains firmly optimistic, if a wee bit too bright-eyed. “Young men of character and of discipline and commitment end up winning in life, and they end up winning in football,” he tells his team at one point. “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it,” he says during another speech. The concept of character is big with this guy; it’s not how you handle wins, he says, but losses. And this team gets to do a lot of that, having never won a playoff game in the school’s 110-year history and even being hired out as a practice team for more successful schools to fine-tune their skills against. Ouch.
Of course, a winning documentary can’t focus on an entirely losing team, and Undefeated is uplifting in all the right but, crucially, not the most obvious places. Courtney, though he’s a white semisuccessful businessman with a loving family, identifies with many of his poor, black players because his father left when he was a small boy. “You start feeling like you’re not very valuable” when Dad’s not around, he says, though he notes the irony that he himself often spends more time with his team than with his own kids. He’s regularly pushed to the edge by the trouble-making players and questions when enough is enough. But Courtney’s constant yapping at them does sink in, because they not surprisingly start winning games.
The final game is, as are all final games in movies, a nail-biter. But wait and see what happens before assuming it goes the Tigers’ way. Undefeated’s title refers more to the inner strength of the players than the team itself. And, just like a well-fought playoff win, it’ll leave you a little misty-eyed.