Undefeated: Toronto Film Review

A stirring, finely crafted human-interest story about underprivileged lives touched by the rewards of shared experience.

The football Tigers of Manassas High School in North Memphis attempt to become the first team in 110 years to win a playoff game in Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin's sports documentary.

A documentary about a defining season for an inner-city high school football team might sound like it’s strictly for sports fans, but Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin amply transcend that niche with the uplifting underdog story, Undefeated.

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Picked up by the Weinstein Company out of the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, this intimately observed film combines elements of sports docs like Hoop Dreams with real-life plot lines that echo those of Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side. The narrative trajectory manages to follow a tried-and-true template while incorporating the unexpected knocks and messy developments of unscripted experience. And if the story’s ending is more bittersweet than triumphant, it’s no less emotionally satisfying for it.

In the 110-year history of Manassas High School in North Memphis, the school’s football team, the Tigers, has never won a playoff game. But the 2009 season provided their strongest shot ever, thanks to a star left tackle, O.C. Brown, attracting attention from college scouts for his size and speed, though struggling academically to achieve qualifying grades. Even more crucial, however, is the dedication of volunteer coach Bill Courtney.

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The two other members of the all-black team that provide the documentary’s principal focus are Chavis Daniels, a junior linebacker returning from a stint in a youth detention facility and continuing to battle anger issues; and Montrail “Money” Brown, an honors student and undersized right tackle who compensates for his physical shortcomings with sheer tenacity on the field.

With pleasing economy, Lindsay and Martin, who also shot and edited the slickly packaged film, show the hard-luck environment from which these young men struggle to emerge. The closing of the Firestone tire plant in the 1980s dealt a crippling economic blow to the area, with resultant increases in poverty and crime.

Educational funding cutbacks have hit the school hard, with the football program seemingly just one casualty. In the seasons leading up to 2009, Manassas had been forced to accept morale-crushing “pay games” to stay operational, taking checks to lose to rival schools in order to put momentum behind those teams.

While some audiences might chafe at seeing another story in which disenfranchised African-American lives are elevated by white benevolence, there’s no questioning the conviction of the story as presented here, or the unstinting commitment of Courtney, a white businessman, and his fellow coaches.

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Cutting into time spent with his own family, Courtney strives to instill not just field tactics into the team, but a sense of self-worth, pushing attributes of character, discipline and collaborative spirit to be applied as much to life as to the game.

Starting from first day of practice and building steadily toward the climactic playoff game, the film’s pacing is sharply modulated and suspenseful. Michael Brook’s propulsive music is a significant asset in keeping the storytelling brisk and dynamic. Tense game sequences are intercut with pep talks, emotional insights and dramatic setbacks. These include O.C.’s initially poor exam results and the logistical challenges of getting him a tutor; Chavis being suspended due to his uncontrolled bouts of aggression; and Money’s injury. Without artificially sentimentalizing these developments, the filmmakers have captured an unusually rich, full-bodied drama that resonates especially in these difficult times for hardscrabble communities all over the country.

Coach Bill is the central figure here, and a completely engaging one with his mix of down-home inspirational spirit and straight-talking candor. But it’s the coming-of-age stories of O.C., Chavis and Money that provide the real human-interest heft. It’s impossible not to root for these guys, or to leave Undefeated without feeling enormously moved by the experience of their joys and disappointments.