Watching inspirational movies is often like eating ice cream. While you’re taking it in, it’s sweet and immensely pleasurable, but as soon as you’ve reached the end, all that’s left is an empty carton. Maybe we won’t go as far as saying this kind of cinema is empty, but those swooned by “The Blind Side” or “The Help” have little to ruminate on after the underdog stories are well digested (aside from a vague, lingering ‘Uh, was that racist?’ sentiment). There is also something very artificial and manufactured, as those films pretended to capture life at its most passionate when they were both smartly manipulative pieces of melodrama.
On that note, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s high school football documentary “Undefeated” is an antidote to those carefully constructed mainstream confections. It doesn’t feel real simply because it’s non-fiction, but because the directors refrain from glorifying their subjects. We’re there for their triumphs but also for their mistakes, and therefore, we can meet them on a human and emotional level. Our affection for them feels much more legitimate and significant because we’re not fooled into thinking anyone is infallible.
The Manassas Tigers have it bad – they’re a losing team and a joke, often bused to other schools as a warm up for those better teams. While the pay is great for the school, it was the kids bearing the brunt of the fallout, not long getting defeated on the field, but off as well, with their self-confidence taking the biggest of blows. This tradition changed when Bill Courtney, father and businessman, decided to take a shot at the team and prove that they were just as capable as anyone else. No longer would they be the laughing stock of the field. Aside from employing vigorous training sessions, Courtney becomes a friend to the teens, supporting them emotionally and helping them in any way he can (at one point, he arranges one of the players to stay with an assistant coach to get tutoring). Three players are focused in the film’s chronicle of the football season: the zipping mammoth left tackle O.C. Brown, tiny lineman Montrail “Money” Brown and hot headed linebacker Chavis Daniels. Each have their own obstacles to overcome, and the Daniels does his best to be the team’s moral support and leader.
Charging through the year to a score reminiscent of The Black Keys, the two filmmakers more than manage to keep their various balls in the air, with none of their five subjects (four people and a game-year) ever getting the short straw. And although we get our own quality alone time with everyone, all elements are effectively intertwined – we learn as much about Chavis as we do Courtney — and our investment in their stories and lives make the football sequences that much more powerful, and we quickly find ourselves rooting to see these guys come out on top.
As mentioned before, the filmmakers don’t shy away from the tougher moments, avoiding the gift-wrap delivery and tidy epilogues that mark lesser films. That said, while it’s an engrossing experience in the moment, “Undefeated” leaves very little to chew on afterwards. Still, the good ol’ “inspiring tale” can be enough depending on your mood, and on that end the movie delivers better than most. The potential to charm the pants off of large audiences is here and you’ll get a chance to see it soon enough. The Weinstein Company nabbed the rights earlier this year, and we expect it’s start rolling out in 2012. With the right push, this spry little flick is likely to go far. [B]