Undefeated (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

film undefeated 75What it does want to do is make you learn a little about life, root for the underdog, and maybe even to get inspired.

film undefeated 500

In one of the most solid categories this most recent Oscar night, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film Undefeated won the prize for best documentary feature. If Undefeated won and was in a category of five genuinely good or great films, it has to be extra-good, right?

Well, yeah, Undefeated is a very good film, but it’s hard to ignore a few things. (1) It is being released by The Weinstein Company, which is of course headed by Harvey Weinstein, who has proven time and again that he can get just about any Oscar he wants for the films he releases. (2) It fits neatly into a type of film the Academy has really gone for lately, where a scrappy white person shows black people how to succeed (see also: The Help, or especially The Blind Side, which Undefeated plays very much like a documentary version of). And (3) A film quite like Undefeated but much better was overlooked by Oscar almost 20 years ago and is now considered one of the masterpieces of the documentary feature form: Steve James’ 1994 film Hoop Dreams. (It’s worth noting that James’ almost-as-good-as-Hoop Dreams 2011 doc, The Interrupters, was also overlooked in the category that Undefeated went on to win.)

Moving past those caveats, yes, Undefeated is very good. It focuses on the coach of a high school football team in Manassas, a troubled suburb of Memphis, named Bill Courtney; he’s the aforementioned scrappy white person, though is admittedly coming from an entirely different angle than Emma Stone or Sandra Bullock’s characters did in their respective films. His team, the Tigers, has never won a playoff game in its 110-year history, and has been something of a joke or, at best, something for the better teams to walk over.

You can guess the story from here: Courtney sees that his 2009 team (when the film was shot) is probably the school’s best ever, and he makes it his goal to at least get them to win at least one damned playoff game. And while the film focuses mostly on Courtney (who is, it must be said, an excellent coach—one is reminded of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the film Friday Night Lights)—strong characters are made out of at least three of his players. There’s O.C. Brown, whose story mirrors Michael Oher’s to a kind of alarming degree (meaning that he’s a sweet kid and a prodigy at football, but has an at least somewhat shaky background and who needs a tutor to be able to pass his classes and get a football scholarship); there’s Montrail “Money” Brown, one of the best all-around athletes/scholars at Courtney’s disposal; and perhaps most cinematically there is Chavis Daniels, who is very good at football but can’t seem to go five minutes without losing his temper and causing major problems for everyone, not least of who is himself.

We’ve all seen movies like this before, of course, be they fiction, documentary, or fictionalized accounts of true stories. But Undefeated doesn’t set out to break new ground in documentary topics or the handling of the genre (if you want to call it that). What it does want to do is make you learn a little about life, root for the underdog, and maybe even to get inspired. So while you can make the argument that it shouldn’t have won that Oscar (I would have given it to Paradise Lost 3 in a heartbeat—and yes, I did see all five nominated films) or that it’s not as good a film as some other ones you can drum up off the top of your head, I’d have to argue with you if you tried to tell me that it doesn’t achieve the above-stated goals it sets for itself—and that’s quite an accomplishment. | Pete Timmermann

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