Director: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin
The voice of Bill Courtney — powerful and punctuated, resolute and fearless — permeates every ounce of Undefeated, a marvelously spirited high school football documentary from Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. A businessman by day, Courtney, whose love for football flows through his veins with more vigorous density than his own blood, is the volunteer football coach at North Memphis’s Manassas High School. He took over in 2004, when the team’s hopes equaled the decrepit emptiness of the town that surrounds the high school. As the film begins, Courtney’s program is filled with promise and the potential for the program’s best season to date.
Courtney’s the main presence in the film, but there are a handful of players the filmmakers focus on as well. First is O.C. Brown, an offensive lineman with blinding power and speed and the most naturally gifted athlete on the entire roster. Thanks to a YouTube video put together by another of the team’s volunteer coaches, Brown is poised to contend for a college football scholarship. Like many of his teammates, though, academics are a tough grind, and the 16 he needs on the ACT to receive college eligibility becomes his primary obstacle.
There’s also Montrail, who we come to know and love as “Money.” Blessed with a warm heart and mental toughness, “Money” is a severely undersized lineman who gets by with unusual intelligence and passion. He’s often haunted, though, by his father’s death (which came when he was a teenager), and a later knee injury threatens his well-deserved stability even further. A third Manassas Tiger, Chavis, is another of the film’s key interests — he’s a fiercely talented player, but his long-standing anger issues are a constant hazard to the team’s well-being.
The power of Undefeated is unique, because it tracks a storyline that, in a glossily-fashioned Hollywood context, could easily come off as preachy life-affirmation. But the film is so restlessly passionate that it’s almost impossible to even fathom a sappy version of the material. The straight-arrow honesty of every beat works. Like Courtney, the filmmakers are no-nonsense contributors — wise and outspoken, but never aiming to overshadow the rich delicacy of these kids and their situations.
Indeed, the philosophy of the film correlates beautifully with Courtney’s own. Much of Undefeated consists of the coach’s dynamic with his players, whether it be heated halftime speeches or one-on-one talks about topics as intimate as anything between a father and son. One of his main creeds explains how it’s the valleys, not the peaks, that reveal true character, and what’s great about the film is that despite the team journeying through a successful season, conflict and struggle are ever-present substances. Football and life aren’t separate here — they’re always affecting each other, in moving and interesting ways.
You’ll feel better about life after seeing Undefeated. I guarantee it. And not in a “life is cherries and flowers” kind of way. The effect of the film isn’t rooted in the external events that occur, but rather in the souls of the human beings on display. Bill Courtney is as inviting a movie character as I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s not simply because he’s a good person with good intentions. It’s because, in the context of the stadium and the locker room, he opens the door to his innermost core, revealing a person of steadfast determination and endless fervor for what he does. “Football reveals character,” he says during the film’s opening, and Undefeated made me believe him. It’s got a whole lot of character, and a whole lot of heart.
Undefeated is now in limited release.
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