Coach Bill Courtney disputes the notion, commonly distributed by his fellow high school football coaches, that football builds character. "Football reveals character," he insists. He would know; for years before he took over as coach at Manassas High in North Memphis, Tennessee, the team would go entire seasons without a victory; they had never won a playoff game. The team had been infected by the malaise that had overtaken the town, once the booming home of a Firestone plant, now just another abandoned industrial center. But Courtney knew the materials were there for a championship team. Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin's extraordinary documentary Undefeated follows them through what looks like a championship season, resulting in something akin to a non-fiction Friday Night Lights--both in terms of subject matter and emotional weight.
With astonishing access, the filmmakers follow the Manassas team through their season: early practices, each game, the personality conflicts and off-the-field scuffles. There's no narration--the filmmakers have a stylish sense of montage, and use on-screen text, a fast pace, and well-chosen sound (albeit with occasional, unnecessary subtitles--just because they're Southern black kids doesn't mean we can't understand them). Most of all, as with any great verité-style documentary, they understand the vital importance of plucking out the most interesting and compelling "characters" on the team.
Three players are put into focus. O.C. Brown is a 300-pound left-tackle with a speed and athleticism that is astonishing for a player of his size; he's also struggling badly in class, and his hopes for a college scholarship aren't going to get him anywhere if he doesn't have the grades to match. Montrail "Money" Brown is an undersized right tackle whose grades are top-notch--he just plays for the joy of playing, which is why his potentially season-ending ACL injury is so heartbreaking. And then there's Chavis Daniels, a junior, just out of a 15-month stint in juvie, who clearly has some anger and authority issues.
Chavis presents the biggest challenge to Coach Bill, who has as much trouble controlling him as anyone. This kid is on a frighteningly short fuse; he and Money have an out-of-nowhere fight scene that is as tense and scary as it is unexpected. Courtney talks at one point about the connection he has with many of his players, of a childhood damaged by the abandonment of a father. As a result, these boys have had to act like "men"--for better or, more often, for worse--for an uncommonly large part of their lives. He understands that, but for Courtney, a small business owner volunteering at the school, it's still trying. "Ya'al are killing me," he tells them in a moment of frustration. "You're suckin' it right outta me."
Undefeated isn't just about personalities, or their pursuit of that elusive championship. It's about the realization, felt by every high school senior, of not knowing "what happens next." It's about the question of athletic value, and what makes a jock worthy of special tutorial attention (one not quite addressed satisfactorily, but certainly more than in, say, The Blind Side). It's about the day-to-day realities of going to a tough school (a school security guard has to brief the team after rumors float up of a post-game fight with a rival team).
But mostly, it's a film about honesty. These boys are becoming men, and what we see in Undefeated--yet what is thankfully left unstated--is that they are growing to understand the value and importance of letting themselves be who they are. Per Coach Bill, their aim is "not just to win football games, but to reach your hearts through something you love." There is a scene near the film's conclusion where troublemaker Chavis speaks openly to his team, from his heart, and it's an uncommonly affecting moment; that scene is just a warm-up, though, for the teary scenes at the film's end between the coach and his seniors, Money and O.C. "You keep doing the right thing, and good things are gonna happen to you," he tells Money, and as the young man's tears flow freely, it is impossible not to join him in that emotional climax.