Undefeated scores its biggest victory off the field.
I'm not sure that Undefeated, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature in February, would have gotten my vote. (My pick for best documentary -- Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss -- wasn't even nominated.) I do, however, think that Undefeated -- which follows a single season of a downtrodden Tennessee high school football team -- has plenty of conflict and characters that we learn to care about. We don't root for these young men because they play for a much-derided football team that's trying to capture its share of glory, but because many of them are playing from behind, as far as life is concerned. This North Memphis school and its students are dealing with crippling economic deprivation, some of it resulting from the loss of a factory. Coach Bill Courtney tries to push his Manassas Tigers toward an achievement that has eluded the school for more than a decade: He desperately wants to make the playoffs. Courtney, who can be tough, faces a constant barrage of frustration, but he cares about the kids who play for him, sometimes to the point of neglecting his own family. Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin build their film around the coach's relationship with three of his players: Montrail 'Money' Brown wants to succeed on and off the field, but hits a rough patch when he's injured. Just released from juvenile detention, Chavis Daniels has a major chip on his shoulder. O.C. Brown stands out as a talented lineman who could be college bound if he's able to raise his GPA. Undefeated becomes a story about the struggles of fatherless kids and a coach who grew up fatherless and understands their pain. Courtney constantly fights to keep his charges on track, admitting that he sometimes doesn't know whether he should throw in the towel. A man of strong character and rumpled appearance, Courtney holds them film together just as he keeps his team from crumbling. Undefeated includes a fair amount of high school football, but the passes, runs and tackles aren't what stay with you. What lingers are the kids, their coach and the taxing but ultimately rewarding year they spend together.