Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s touching Academy Award-winning drama would be cliche if it were fiction. An underdog team, raucous youth, an inspiring coach to rally his troops to an unlikely win. Though it’s a little bit of a lot of films, the thing about Undefeated is that it’s real. Its characters aren’t characters. Its moments aren’t staged. Its emotions aren’t feigned. Its history isn’t fabricated. Its environments aren’t designed. And its stakes aren’t a plot device. Lindsay and Martin document the 2009 season of the underfunded, underperforming, and undisciplined Manassas Tigers high school football team. With volunteer head coach Bill Courtney as the film’s – and the team’s – center of gravity, a collection of young adults with nothing to lose begin to learn the seriousness of “putting the team before yourself,” and how one can make themself all the better for their own unselfishness. Courtney says “Football does not build character. It reveals character,” and the film captures this ongoing revelation in the few students whose lives become its focus.
Undefeated is a film for lovers of football, and for lovers of classic human drama. The concentration is never on the mechanics of the game, but on everything else around those mechanics; ie. socioeconomic divides, academic performance, home life, the college path. Courtney constantly stresses that football alone will not save these children from their circumstances, and tries to reveal each player’s own character to themselves. His goal is for each player to build up their whole selves, so that there is nothing in their way to extract themselves from disadvantage.
Ultimately a very human and relevant story, Undefeated is also a very simply told story. Its all the better for this lack of “artistry” (although the music for the film is fantastic). Through the filmmakers’ tactful simplicity, Manassas, Tennessee is shown in all its faded glory, while the hazard and hopelessness of growing up in an area like it is felt palpably. And yet, not content to wallow in obvious strains of disadvantage, Coach Courtney and the students recognize the glimmers of possibility that they themselves can foster.
Undefeated opens today in Philly-area theaters.