It’s very hard not to like “Undefeated,” the underdog sports film that is currently also considered the underdog among the 2012 Oscar nominees in the feature documentary category. I’m not exactly sure why it’s thought to be a long shot, though, since it is a gorgeously shot, expertly edited and very accessible movie with a familiar narrative and appealing characters. Also it’s got distributor backing from Harvey Weinstein (not that he’s ever bagged an Oscar for a doc before, as far as I can recall). Is it the crowd-pleasing quality that has people thinking it’s not serious enough to win? Or, is it truly a dark horse because it deserves to be, since it’s not anywhere near as significant an achievement in nonfiction filmmaking as the other four contenders?
I do believe it lacks a certain amount of substance and hardly has what it takes to remain memorable down the line, but the same could have been said about 2006 winner “March of the Penguins,” and look at that movie. It shows up in one of this year’s Best Picture favorites with the apparent status of family film classic. But “Undefeated” is basically just a common inner-city-set football film and would seem rather cliche and too dramatically forced if it were a narrative feature. I have to liken it to animated feature nominee “Chico & Rita” because both films seem to get a pass by the Academy this year for not being a “regular” movie. Why? Neither animation nor nonfiction should excuse a film for being otherwise conventional in its storytelling or hollow in terms of what it’s bringing to the field.
Directed by T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, who also shot and edited the doc themselves, “Undefeated” tracks a potentially monumental year for the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, considerably the worst high school football team in Tennessee, under the leadership of their highly devoted, respectful and patient volunteer head coach, Bill Courtney. Their struggles in the game and out are primarily based in their lack of discipline and confidence. One prominent player has just returned from juvie and has anger issues. Other athletes are said, right off the back, to have been shot or shot someone at the start of the season. But the team also suffers the usual sporting obstacles. At least one character is badly injured, of course, although — spoiler? — he heals just in time for the last game of the season.
“Undefeated” could very well be remade one day, probably with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead, and I’m sure it would be criticized far more harshly even if (or especially if) it ended up a Best Picture hopeful with easy comparisons drawn to “The Blind Side” and this year’s divisive drama “The Help.” I don’t actually have any issue with a story in which white people are helping black people, and that’s not my problem with either “The Help” or “Undefeated,” particularly the latter since we’re seeing a true story unfold instead of a fictional adaptation. Still I think the documentary shields its black characters too much behind Courtney, the film’s admittedly inspiring, charismatic star. His arc as a fatherless father-figure to other fatherless boys while leaving his own kids relatively fatherless is interesting enough, but I would have liked to see more attention given in this nearly two-hour film to more of the players’ home lives.
Not that we get a whole lot of Courtney’s own life away from coaching, either. He does mention again and again, to the point of overkill, that he’s neglecting his home and family to lead the Manassas team. Yet aside from a little interview with Courtney’s wife and a scene with his kids in which he is indeed inattentive, we really just know that side of this story through exposition. And that’s actually how a lot of the narrative is told — after the fact and courtesy of the many one-on-one rides-along with Courtney in his truck. Between these talky moments we get lots of well-pieced-together montages of football games, practices and other bits and pieces of school activity. And then there are the other concentrated and connective monologue scenes of the coach giving lectures, pep talks and stern speeches. Seriously, “Undefeated” could just as easily be adapted to the stage, with all the football action projected between acts (or not), as it could be redone as a dramatic movie.
I have to say, though, I genuinely enjoyed the movie for what it is, and I even got teary eyed at one of the emotion-heavy scenes in the third act. I might have been manipulated by the cutting of this scene and also afterward by the tense, neck-and-neck playoff game sequence employed for the film’s finale. For the most part the doc is very choppy so it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that some games are presented with dramatically tweaked pacing and selective footage. Meanwhile many of the best-looking shots in the film occur during games and look like they’re the product of a day spent lighting the characters and blocking the compositions. But these are all brief shots and likely are just carefully pulled from the hours of lesser cinematographic material. All of this is totally understandable and here the chiseled down editing and the music score — a mix of churchly organs and soldierly snares — are immensely effective at keeping us immersed and engaged. That’s what one aspect of documentary directing is all about, as it is with any kind of cinema, maintaining the audience’s attention and interest to the end.
After the credits I don’t really care what happens to these people, which isn’t a fault. In fact, I wish more documentaries were so comfortable in being isolated stories, regardless of them being nonfiction and as a rule ongoing. We don’t have to take into consideration what either Courtney or this film has done for the kids beyond the story that’s on the screen. We don’t have to think about how it’s made or why, nor what it could affect beyond what our eyes, ears and heart experience in those 113 minutes. It’s just a good, entertaining sports movie. Still, it’s not the most exciting sports movie I’ve seen in the past year let alone in a long time. “Undefeated” is very comparable to the recent high school basketball doc, “Prayer for a Perfect Season,” for instance, in spite of that film being about one of the best teams in the nation. And so I couldn’t help but wish this Oscar nominee was a more riveting and kinetic work. I guess it favors emotion over energy, which probably will appeal to many viewers, especially those not into football.
But I wanted a bit more from this movie, and that’s possibly to do with its Oscar nomination and all its audience awards and the tremendous buzz I’ve seen on this doc since it debuted at SXSW last year. I probably could have praised its positive aspects a lot more had I seen it earlier. I still do like and recommend it. It’s just hard not to come down on it at this point in the game or from this vantage point from the sidelines. I’ll just say it, “Undefeated” is extremely overrated. And it will be defeated at the Academy Awards next weekend.
"Undefeated" opens this Friday, February 17.
Recommended If You Like: "Friday Night Lights"; "Mooney vs. Fowle"; "Go Tigers!"