[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
It's not generally a compliment to say that a film reminds you of other films, or has the DNA of other films; the phrases "a poor man's" or "but with less" seem inevitable. To call a documentary "well made" isn't the highest of praise, either, suggesting as it does the absence of anything extraordinary. "Every shot in focus — a triumph of competence!"
Undefeated did remind me of other stories, and it is well put together, but that doesn't mean it's derivative or dull. It's a straight-ahead chronicle of a year in the life of a North Memphis football team that has never darkened the doorstep of the state playoffs in the school's long history. Practice is held on a hillocky field surrounded by abandoned buildings, and presided over by a plump ginger volunteer coach named Bill Courtney who will bellow the same speech about failures contributing to character until his team hears it.
The film has echoes of everything from Hoosiers to Hoop Dreams (the rising and falling fortunes of Money and Chavis) to The Blind Side to the late great Friday Night Lights, but that's a pretty impressive list of memorable narratives to have echoing down your movie. (Well, I loathed The Blind Side on film, but I'm told the book is good.) Directors T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay trust their story, and their subjects, and rightly so; Bill Courtney probably knows what the filmmakers are going for, and he's good at boiling those things down, but not in a sound-bitey way. In one longish interview, he ruminates on giving up on people, how you know if it's a test or a lost cause. Elsewhere, he grumps that football does not build character, "football reveals character."
Martin and Lindsay (the latter of whom also made a doc about the road to the world beer-pong championships; awesome) don't try to reinvent the wheel, or get all hectic with interstitial fonts in an attempt to apologize for a straight-ahead conventional documentary. It's kids, hope, and grown men getting their crying done through football. You don't have to spread much mustard on that. (And that crying scene is a killer.)
More on this when I write my Best Doc overview, but it's a nice piece of work that basically has no shot.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com.