‘Undefeated’: Not whether you win or lose, but how well the film is made
Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
Documentary, 2011, USA
After the Academy Award nominations were announced, there was some grumbling from the political site Wonkette about “the Sarah Palin movie” being nominated for Best Documentary. That just goes to show how far under the radar Undefeated flew: as Wonkette eventually realized, it’s a different movie altogether (the Palin doc was The Undefeated), and unlike the Palin film it wholly deserves mention among the great documentaries of the year.
This is the story of the Manassas (Tenn.) Tigers’ quest to win a football playoff game, something which has not happened in the long history of that high school. Manassas is an inner-city school, its surroundings ravaged by the recent recession, and its kids are mostly dirt-poor. Thus the film sometimes strays from a Friday Night Lights type of tone and leans toward The Blind Side, as coach Bill Courtney (white and wealthy enough to coach for no pay) tries to set his troubled, universally black team on the right path. Courtney even takes one senior – the one with the big-time college football chances, of course – into his home for tutoring sessions, echoing the Sandra Bullock film.
However, the documentary format is what sets this film apart from something saccharine like The Blind Side; there’s an entire team in front of the camera, and not all of them can be heroes in every game. The game scenes show that the team has stars at the glamour positions of quarterback and running back, but the students who get the most screen time away from games are the linemen who do the dirty work. In fact most of the actual games in Manassas’ season pass by in a blur; the players’ off-field problems deserve the sharper focus, and receive it.
Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin also edited the film, and if there is one problem, it’s that they did too good a job. The game film looks too slick, too dramatic, to the point where one might wonder how many cameramen were being devoted to capturing every second of game action. However, Lindsay and Martin maneuver well around the biggest problem with documentaries starring teenagers: the teenagers becoming camera-conscious and trying too hard to “perform” for the filmmakers. A key scene where one player makes a speech to the team has this problem, but all of the movie’s other emotional moments ring truly and powerfully as though the cameras were never there, which is all one can ask for from a good documentary.