It seems impossibly feel-good, this tale of sacrifice and redemption, tragedy and triumph. It may also sound like the kind of uplifting football drama you’ve seen countless times before — and comparisons to both “Friday Night Lights” and “The Blind Side” will be inevitable.
Still, the Oscar-nominated documentary “Undefeated” knocks you over with a power all its own; told in intimate, unadorned fashion, it comes from a pure place that’s irresistible. It isn’t trying too hard to inspire us — and that’s precisely why it does. Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who directed, shot and edited the film, know well enough to get out of the way and let the story and the characters work their magic.
Their focus is the 2009 football team at Manassas High School in North Memphis, a predominately black school in a blighted part of town which hadn’t won a playoff game in its 110-year history. The filmmakers show us the boarded-up houses that are all-too common in the neighborhood, the random guys drinking 40s out of paper bags in the middle of the day, but rather than depicting an urban stereotype, they reveal a vividly sad sense of place.
Coach Bill Courtney hopes that by working with these kids and developing their strengths on the field, they’ll recognize the importance of being strong men off the field. Or as he puts it: football doesn’t build character, football reveals character. A husband and father of four, he has devoted a ridiculous amount of hours over the past six-plus years to turning this team around from perennial cellar-dwellers to serious contenders in the division.
What’s mind-boggling is that he’s doing it all as a volunteer, which he can afford as the owner of a successful lumber company. Courtney also happens to be white, which is simply never an issue. He gets through to these kids through the sheer force of his personality; portly and boisterous, he can be charming and demanding in equal measure, and he ends up becoming the film’s de facto star.
“Undefeated” also follows three of the Tigers’ main players. When we first meet Montrail “Money” Brown, he’s showing off his science fair project and humbly mentioning that he has a 3.8 grade point average. He lives in a modest house with his grandmother but has dreams of leaving town and going to college — and as a small offensive lineman, he realizes it won’t be football that gets him there.
The heavily recruited left tackle O.C. Brown, the team’s star, is Money’s opposite. With speed and size on his side, he’s getting letters and visits from universities across the country. This endearing gentle giant knows enough to acknowledge: “I’m not the smartest kid in the world, so I think football is my way out.” But the school’s coaches hope to give O.C. a boost academically by having him receive tutoring and live part-time at one of their houses: a mansion in the wealthy part of town, which will call to mind a certain Sandra Bullock movie which also happened to be based on a true story.
Then there’s the hotheaded Chavis Daniels, a talented but troubled linebacker who spent time in a youth penitentiary before returning to the team as a junior. He’s prone to starting trouble even before the first snap, and his transformation from brawling hothead to unlikely leader might be the film’s most rewarding.
But look out — just when you think you know this story and know these types of figures, and just when it feels like the filmmakers zoom in a few times too many as Courtney’s getting choked up during a big speech, “Undefeated” will sneak up on you emotionally with the power of a quarterback sack.
That happens a couple times, actually, so bring tissues. You’ve been warned. And you don’t even have to be a sports fan to be moved.
“Undefeated,” a Weinstein Co. release, is rated PG-13 for some language. Running time: 113 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.