The funny thing about the timing of seeing Undefeated for the first time for me was that it was in the middle of me experiencing the show Friday Night Lights for the first time, specifically the show's fourth season, which gives us the show's star, a football coach who takes over a barren high school and tries to take a barebones group of kids and shapes them to be football players. So to a degree I was prepared for Undefeated, but I had no earthly idea what would come from this.
The film is directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who last worked together on a documentary chronicling a World Series of Beer Pong (which both intrigues me and makes me envious). Lindsay and Martin use Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tennessee, as their setting. The school has been around for more than a century and has yet to win a playoff game in football. The area had a Firestone factory close down a few years ago and since, the surroundings had grown more and more barren. The school was impacted by this and is now in a high crime area where metal detectors are part of entry, and two-parent households are few and far between. The school's intramurals and athletics were such that Manassas would sell the football team's games to other schools for money, to be punished on the field for a few thousand dollars at a time. And the film finds us at the start of the 2009 season.
One of the first people we experience is Bill Courtney. Bill was a former high school coach who moved on from this passion and started his own lumber business in 2001, and it grew to the point where he could live comfortably and provide for his wife and four children. In 2004, Bill decided to coach the Manassas football team and bring in some friends as assistant coaches, all on a volunteer basis. Bill's task gradually becomes one that is more than an on the field investment, and he manages to bring in three players who are key to the team and are also the focus of the film; O.C. is a mammoth offensive lineman who is being courted by many universities for a scholarship, but he will not get one unless his grades improve. Chavis is a junior who is fresh from a youth penitentiary and whose physical talents are matched by a hot temper. And Montrail (nicknamed 'Money') is not as physically gifted, but his grades are such that an academic scholarship is a possibility, provided it is a full one.
While it is easy to see early on how bad things are for some of these kids (the montage of the boarded up windows, storefronts and abandoned cars help in that regard), we see just how seemingly hopeless it is. O.C. lives with his grandmother in a house that can possibly be described as being as big as he is. We do not see much of Money's home life, other than he raises a pet turtle. The lack of parents is stark when a friend of Bill's (a former NFL player) comes to talk to the team. A hand-raising survey finds most of the boys on the team without a parent, and almost all of the boys know someone who has been in jail. Many of them are without any real impactful father figure in their lives, save for Bill. And as the film goes on, we find out Bill lacked that same father figure growing up also. Perhaps that is the reason why he decided to do this in the first place. His bond with the players is one that becomes a father along with a coach, and his wife tends to realize this. As the film goes on, Bill tends to realize that the time demands are wearing on his family at home, so an adjustment should be made, and when the season ends, it is one of predictably tearful goodbyes.
It is at this point where you may have noticed that I have not mentioned much about the season, how it goes and what actually happens. To that, I would only say that the season should unfurl as naturally for the viewer as possible as it did for me. The thing I will say is that much of what occurs unfolds in such ways that are incredulous yet moving. It is not that I was cynical about what happened, it is just that some of the things that happen (from an off-field standpoint) are so storybook that to see their payoffs after the boys' respective ordeals tamped down my jaded eyes. I cannot help but wonder what Lindsay and Martin were thinking about when they first started shooting the team and school, and how things likely changed for them from an expectations standpoint.
An important thing to remember about Undefeated is that from a sporting perspective, the title is less about any sort of perfect football season from Manassas High School. It is more about the spirit of the coach and his players, and the stories that unfold are more than enough to warm the coldest of hearts. Where Friday Night Lights gives us a fictionalized, Dangerous Minds frame of mind when it comes to the storytelling, Undefeated gives us the genuine article in moments that are amazing and moving. If you have not seen it, you are depriving yourself. If you have, see it again to re-experience the feelings.
Anchor Bay/Weinstein rolls Undefeated out in an AVC-encoded 1.78:1 widescreen presentation that looks solid. The film was shot with handheld cameras and the look is natural and reproduced as accurately as can be. Film grain is present during scenes during most of the film and it is as natural as can be, free of DNR and image haloing. Image detail is decent though nothing to behold, black levels tend to fluctuate a tad but are not distracting to the viewing experience. It was how I was anticipating it to look on Blu-ray.
DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround rules the day, which for this documentary is hardly groundbreaking but perfectly expected. The film has an underlying score of hip hop music that sounds clear and could show off a good soundstage if called upon. Dialogue is replicated accurately, though some subtitles are provided for potential hard to hear moments if one needs them. The feature is devoid of noticeable channel panning or directional effects, but considering the nature of the source was no surprise. It is good to listen to overall.
Lindsay and Martin join up for a commentary that is fun yet relatively informative. Their intentions for how the viewer should experience the film are recounted, along with any production challenges they may have faced. They talk about the pride they had in showing the film to Courtney, and remember how (from a filming perspective) how the shoot evolved. They also provide some additional depth to the players and some specific moments in the movie. While there is some silence here and there, it is a decent track and worth listening to.
The rest of the features are relatively quick. Six deleted scenes (14:06) cover a variety of things, including an excised story about one of the players who shuffled through the foster home system, along with another stirring speech where Bill rallies the players. A "Making of" (8:31) on the film includes Courtney and executive producer Sean "P. Diddy" Combs talking about what the film is, and Lindsay and Martin remembering how they came to the story, and their impact on the team and school. The latter pairing remembers their Oscar win and what they were thinking about at the time, which is an additional neat moment. A black and white teaser trailer for the film (1:42) closes things out.
I remember being initially surprised that Undefeated won the Best Feature Documentary at last year's Oscars. And now that I have seen it, I kind of want it to win again, each year, until it tires me if that's possible. This isn't The Blind Side, this is real. This isn't Hoop Dreams, this is different, and possibly better. Seek it out and watch it, and you will want to own it and see it again repeatedly, like I plan to do.