Daniel Lindsay's and T.J. Martin's Undefeated, the Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, is a solid, sincere, affecting documentary of one year in a North Memphis, Tennessee, high school football program. It's a story of the place, the team and its individual members, and, strikingly, volunteer head coach Bill Courtney.
North Memphis is a community under the influence of high unemployment, the foreclosure crisis, crime and blight which, as Coach Courtney says more than once, is all but disavowed as even part of the state of Tennessee in other, more prosperous regions and cities of the state. There's also a crisis of fatherlessness which Courtney identifies with and recognizes personally himself. The team he leads at Manassas High School has never won a playoff game and is not usually treated as a serious football program among local media or other schools. The players deal with pressures on and off the field, in their schoolwork and in their home lives.
The 2009 school year is Courtney's sixth (and final?) year coaching, meaning that he's had time to do some recruiting of serious local talent who might have written off their chances to stand out at Manassas, and to refocus the football program under his leadership. Courtney has known most of the players since their freshman years and tried hard to help them develop their abilities, and not just on the football field.
I'd kind of like to run down the list of players who come to make up much of the heart of the film, but on the other hand, I'd like to let viewers meet them for themselves in context without previewing any of their struggles or triumphs more. There are a number of standout players and stories, and they speak for themselves as presented in Undefeated. Leaving even their names out of this review is not out of disrespect for them, but out of respect for the film's methods and successful storytelling. If you get to see Undefeated for yourself, and I strongly recommend that you do, maybe you'll see what I mean, and I'm sure their names and stories will stay with you.
The stories of the film, which come together in the bigger picture, are emotionally resonant and rather self-contained. The filmmakers deserve great credit for their being so, as they present them fully and well, without much direct editorial comment beyond some explanatory titles and the intimate footage they've amassed.
I'll admit I teared up a few times, and didn't feel very manipulated to do so, which is the best way to tear up in any kind of movie. Of course the story elements and the moments which are chosen to be portrayed have to have some manipulation in order to have an emotional impact like Undefeated certainly has, but the emotions are not cheap, fake nor overwrought to the point that they lose anything realistic or important.
Indeed, the overwhelming feeling transmitted about the film's framing and execution is admiration, and sometimes wonderment, at how unobtrusive the filmmakers have been in documenting an amazing year at Manassas, and the large and small, public and private human interactions which make it up. Attempting to put oneself in the filmmakers' positions in capturing all this is mind-boggling. They establish a nearly undetectable style while still maintaining the rapport and trust with the film's subjects necessary to put the film's true events, story and meaning over to the audience.
The film's soundtrack is noticeably well done. It consists both of original music by Michael Brook and a list of lesser-known soul music songs of their era which are not necessarily big, easily recognizable hits, but which pack a punch here and demand further examination themselves. Still, the music doesn't intrude, but tracks and helps move the story at a certain pace, with a certain feeling that matches the overall goals of the film well.
Undefeated is not, in my estimation, the very best documentary of 2011. I count four excellent documentaries ahead of it in my official rankings for the year--Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Born to Be Wild, The Interrupters and Pina, to be precise, some Oscar-nominated and some not--but Undefeated is mentioned in their company to its advantage. It's a fine, moving work about struggle, and about a man who chooses to stand in the gaps, to make a difference, to show others how it can be done, which avoids exploitation or just plain corniness to tell its true, truthful and valuable story. More good questions are asked and vital needs expressed than can get wrapped up simply, and this is true, too.
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