Every Memphian should see Undefeated. Scratch that: Everybody should see it. The film, fresh off an Academy Award win for Best Documentary Feature, opens here this Friday.
Undefeated had its local premiere last fall at the Indie Memphis Film Festival. But the movie is getting a significant national release now. The most high-profile documentary ever made in Memphis, Undefeated is also on the short list of the best films ever made here.
It tells the story of a season of football at Manassas High School in North Memphis. The program was a loser for decades and never won a playoff game in its 110-year history. That was until volunteer coach Bill Courtney began turning it around and instilling a winning attitude in the players.
The football scenes are riveting. With footage filmed with the assistance of the local company Running Pony Productions, the directors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, capture the nerves, the spectrum of amateur athleticism, the heart, the disappointment, the anger, the euphoria of high school sports. We get to hear Coach Courtney's pre-game and halftime speeches and how he prepares the players for the game or pumps them up to make a comeback.
Not a football fan? That's all right. This movie's for you, too. Because Undefeated, more than a story about a football team, is about how a group of young men and their coach struggle through life together. The film accesses the universal themes of growing up through a very specific locale and set of circumstances. In one powerful scene, a guest speaker has the players raise their hands if their parents went to college; not many hands. Then he asks them if they have a close relative who's been in jail; more hands.
Courtney teaches them that their teammates come first and that the character of a man doesn't come from successes but what he does with failures. The message is no empty homily; it resonates with his players, who have known failure more than success in their lives and, odds are, will encounter more of the same. Growing up in these circumstances is scary. You can feel it.
The stories of three primary players are told: O.C., a right tackle with legit collegiate athletics aspirations but poor grades that might keep him from qualifying; Montrail "Money," an undersized lineman with a lot of drive and good grades; and Chavis, a junior linebacker who returns to the team after spending 15 months in a youth penitentiary.
Courtney's story comes out too. He's more like the players than he may appear: He didn't have a father growing up, and he knows the hurt that many of his players feel.
The season is a constant tug of war between Courtney and the young men, as he tries to teach them but the lessons don't sink in. How much leeway should he give some of the bigger troublemakers? There are no right answers. Courtney admits he's giving up emotional capital to his players that he's not spending on his own family — a wife and four children. It's a grind.
Formally, Undefeated is beautifully edited and reminds one of the great doc Hoop Dreams (a touchstone for Lindsay and Martin as they were making it), ostensibly about high school sports but really about so much more.
The filmmakers moved to Memphis in 2009 and lived here for nine months, shooting at football practice every day and at school several times a week. They wound up with 500 hours of footage. The film's shape emerged in the editing.
Undefeated crackles with energy. It's an emotional haymaker: There are at least two scenes where you will cry.
Opening Friday, March 2nd