There's a certain kind of underdog sports movie, Undefeated among them, that inspires grown men to blink away tears with a gruff "there's something in my eye" excuse (Confession: I squeezed out a few myself). And if it bears some similarities to the trite and treacly 2009 Sandra Bullock hit, The Blind Side, well all the better for the box office. But as far as the Oscars go (Undefeated took home the prize), there were far worthier documentaries this year — most of which weren't even nominated.
An old-school, fly-on-the-wall doc, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin's film follows Bill Courtney, a hardwood manufacturer, in his sixth year as the volunteer coach of the football program at impoverished Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tenn. In the school's 110-year history its team has never once made the playoffs and, as a teacher confesses, before Courtney, it had probably been more than a decade since they had won their last game. Much like Hoop Dreams and countless other high school sports flicks, tough love and clichés like "football doesn't build character; it reveals character," set the stage for a motley, longshot team of poverty-stricken kids to both triumph on the field and in their personal lives.
In particular, Undefeated singles out a trio of players in a series of quickly sketched dramatic arcs. O.C. Brown is the lumbering, affable offensive tackle who has attracted the notice of college recruiters but struggles to achieve acceptable grades. Desperate to give him a chance, a wealthy white assistant coach takes him into his home where he's provided with the tutoring he needs. His fellow offensive tackle is Montrail "Money" Brown, a small but spirited player who excels in school but is unable to afford college tuition. Rounding out the crew is the volatile Chavis Daniels, whose hair-trigger anger and self-destructive nature threaten to derail the team and ruin any chance he has for a future.
All three are potentially fascinating subjects, but Lindsay and Martin cast them as side players in a film that puts the focus squarely on Coach Courtney. An undeniably decent man, who practices Christian caring and tough love, he's a natural for the camera as he provides an ever-running commentary on his frustrations, philosophies, hopes and fears. The boys, when they do get to speak (subtitles help to cut through their accents), aren't encouraged to reveal much more than the basics of their personalities. Football is clearly giving them a sense of value and purpose, and their respect for Courtney is evident. In fact, they almost seem hungry for the esteem he gives them. But even as we bear witness to their struggles, we learn little of their backgrounds, families or feelings.
Take for instance, Daniels, who provides the documentary with its most dramatic moments. Much is made of Courtney's disappointment with the explosive young man's sabotaging actions. At the end of his rope, he ponders, "At what point do you quit trying?" Never seems to be the answer. But the film gives us no insight into who Daniels' is. We learn that he served time in juvenile detention and little else. No time is spent on his home life or family. The camera never once engages him in an interview. And while his eventual redemption is moving, we have no idea how or why he changed. The best Lindsay and Martin can offer is that an extended suspension turned him around. It's a shallow examination that reveals Undefeated's underlying lack of interest in the black American experience.
For all its good intentions, the film, like its main subject, is a tourist, earning trust as it earnestly captures the incredible struggles of these young men, but never digging deep enough to actually make the story theirs. Nothing is made of a perverse system that gives so little to these impoverished kids yet expects so much. The teens who do make good are often the recipients of random charity from wealthy white benefactors. And while it's incredibly moving to see the reaction of a poverty-stricken kid as his dream of college is realized through the generosity of a donor, one has to wonder about the hundreds of classmates who have neither the exceptional athletic abilities or financial resources to join him.
As a sports movie, Undefeated does everything right. It knows how to rouse and inspire an audience and pluck its heart strings. And there is little doubt that Courtney does what he does for all the right reasons. But as a documentary heralded as the best of 2012, Undefeated fails to provide much-needed social inquiry or personal context. Instead, we're left with the message that except for the charity of white folks, all American society has to offer underprivileged black youth is the bumper sticker doctrine that you have to believe in yourself to succeed.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).