When Undefeated scored a victory in the Documentary Feature category at this year’s Academy Awards, it would have been easy to take the cynical view that it was simply another Triumph of the Campaigning Will for distributor Harvey Weinstein. But give directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin credit: They make it awfully hard to watch their movie cynically.
Their subject is Bill Courtney, the volunteer football coach of Manassas High, a predominantly African-American high school in West Memphis, Tenn. Over the course of a single season, we watch Courtney take the perennially downtrodden program and give it a shot at the playoffs, building a focus on resilience and character.
When the opening game of the season is a loss, however, it becomes clear that the title isn’t just about what happens on the field. Through Courtney’s interactions with three key players—talented but academically challenged offensive tackle O.C., driven but undersized Montrail and volatile Chavis—we get a look at the unique position of a coach to be the father figure many of these young men don’t otherwise have, even at the expense of time spent with his own children.
Undefeated tiptoes around most of the Blind Side-esque racial politics of these relationships, and is pretty unapologetic about its hero-worship of Courtney. The time spent on the actual games, while perhaps unavoidable, still makes much of the film feel like rote sports drama rather than a story of relationships. Yet when we hear O.C. talk about wanting to study education so that he can be a coach like the one he had, or see Chavis speak with humility about a teammate who has inspired him, lumps start crawling into throats. Predictable though the emotional beats may be in “inspirational teacher” stories—even documentary versions—they still have the ability to move us with the simple power of someone deciding to affect a life.