THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
You could look long and hard, but you'd never find another person anywhere who has less interest in football than I do. On the list of things I find interesting, it ranks somewhere below sock fuzz. So it came as a surprise to me that I fell in love with a new documentary called Undefeated, which follows a Tennessee high school football team through their 2009 season. The best sports movies are never really about sports, but rather about the people who play them. That's certainly true here. The Oscar-nominated doc is so humane and so personal that it doesn't matter how you feel about the sport in question.
Early on, we learn that the Manassas Tigers had a less than glamorous past. The inner-city team never got much school funding, especially as economic conditions worsened in the area. For many years, they were a team-for-hire, shipped out to various parts of the state to play much better teams in exchange for a paycheck. Not surprisingly, they never won. And then they got a new volunteer coach, a local businessman named Bill Courtney, who was there for love of the game and, more importantly, to teach the Manassas players that they were capable of being winners. The movie picks up the story a few years after Courtney's arrival, when he's been able to recruit some decent players. For the first time ever, it looks as though the Tigers might have a solid season. It certainly isn't drama-free. A star player, O.C. Brown, is attracting the attention of college recruiters, but struggles to achieve the academic performance level that would allow him to take advantage of their offers. Another player, Chavis Daniels, continually threatens to jeopardize his tremendous potential by letting his anger get the best of him. A third sustains a serious injury that threatens to bench him for the entire season – right as it appears Manassas may have a chance of winning its first playoff game in 110 years of existence.
Through it all, Courtney refuses to let his players stop believing in themselves. This is not a standard case of a coach doling out tough love, either. Yes, he's tough on them, and yes, he loves them; more than that, Courtney seems to understand that, without the proper encouragement, these young men will give up, just as their community has largely expected them to. The coach takes on the role of guardian angel, teaching them dedication, respect, and perseverance. It is a mission for him, one that causes him to neglect his own family at times.
Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin gain remarkable access to the private conversations of their subjects. The camera is right there as Courtney confronts his players, and also as they confess their own fears and insecurities. One can only assume that the filmmakers earned an enormous amount of trust from everyone involved. That's how intimate Undefeated is. I was reminded of the great basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, which also achieved an impressive amount of intimacy. That film was a (no pun intended) documentary game-changer in a way this one is not, but the experience of watching them is similar. You come to care about these kids and root for them through their travails.
I have a long-standing theory that every great documentary contains a scene where something amazing/unexpected is captured on camera. Undefeated has a doozy. I won't spoil it, but in the final twenty minutes, one young man's life is changed forever. It's easily one of the most emotional moments I've ever seen captured on film. Good luck not getting choked up.
Undefeated really captures the change in the Tigers over their increasingly successful season. We can see how their confidence grows, how they start to believe in the possibilities that await them, both as a team and as individuals. Fictional sports movies try to manufacture this sort of uplift all the time; Undefeated has it for real. The end result is less a football documentary than a psychological portrait of a bunch of people, united by circumstances, who work together to realize their full potential. You won't soon forget Bill Courtney, or Chavis Daniels, or O.C. Brown. Made with equal parts style and compassion, this is one of the best docs you're likely to see this year, football fan or not.
( out of four)
Undefeated is rated PG-13 for some language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle versions also available on Amazon.com!