It would be tempting to call the inspirational documentary Undefeated a real-life Blind Side, except for the inconvenient fact that The Blind Side was based on real life, too, adapting Michael Lewis’ book about a white family that nurtured a gifted black football player from a broken home. In both cases, there’s the icky suspicion that actual events have been squeezed into a pre-cooked narrative—about triumph over adversity, the glories of white patronage, and the invaluable life lessons taught on the gridiron. While Undefeated doesn’t entirely overcome these suspicions, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s documentary reveals the complexities of the player-coach relationship and the value of sports, when approached in the right way, to bring direction and purpose to young people’s lives. In the abstract, it sounds like the outline for Hollywood’s next glossy hit; in its particulars, it’s a moving treatment of a team whose fiercest opponent is despair.
When Bill Courtney, a volunteer coach from suburban Memphis, took over the football program at Manassas High School, the team was routinely booking one-win or zero-win seasons and had never won a single playoff game in its 110-year history. This culture of losing was so bad that Manassas’ schedule included several out-of-town games against bigger schools around the state, who would cut them a much-needed check for the privilege of kicking their asses. Undefeated follows Courtney’s sixth season as head coach of the Tigers, when his dogged efforts to turn the team around have finally borne fruit, thanks to a talented core of seniors who developed their skills under his watch. They include O.C. Brown, a massive right tackle whose academic struggles threaten his big-time college prospects; Chavis Daniels, an extremely volatile defensive back who only recently returned from juvenile detention; and Montrail “Money” Brown, an undersized but tenacious lineman who dreams of a college education he can’t afford.
For Courtney, keeping the team together involves diplomacy as much as strategy: A combustible figure like Chavis, for example, can throw off the already-fragile team chemistry, and even the level-headed Money starts to drift when a torn ACL keeps him off the field for much of the season. It’s common for coaches to take roles as father figures on a high-school and college level, but Undefeated gets into how that dynamic works on both ends, as Courtney seeks to salve the pain of his family history. Lindsay and Martin fail to address the racial elephant in the room—Hoop Dreams’ Steve James would have nailed this story—but the high-stakes drama of the Tigers’ last, best hope for glory cannot be easily resisted.