February 2012, in select theaters
Montrail 'Money' Brown, O.C. Brown, Bill Courtney, Chavis Daniels
Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin
The Weinstein Company
More on this movie at IMDb.com
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By Jesse Carey
- "Football doesn't build character; it reveals it."
So goes the philosophy of Bill Courtney, a successful business owner who devotes his free time to coaching the inner-city Manasses High School football team in a poverty-stricken corner of Memphis, Tennessee. When Courtney first took over as the coach of the Manasses Tigers, the team was a local laughing-stock, funded mostly by participating in pay-for-play games where they would travel to better schools and be on the receiving-end of homecoming game thrashings.
But in the six years since Coach Courtney had taken over the team, his group of underprivileged kids finally look like they may be turning a corner. This is where the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated begins.
Following an entire season with the Tigers, the film showcases Courtney's constant struggle to inspire his players—whose opposition off the field dwarfs anything they face between the hash-marks.
Focusing on three players, the story follows the team's Cinderella season—steamrolling the schools that once used them as cupcake schedule padders—as his players face the soon-coming cold realities of life after graduation in a town where hope is as scarce as wins once were.
Chavis Daniels, a hot-headed junior, shows his ability as a gifted linebacker when a bad attitude, fighting and juvenile detention aren't keeping him off the field. Montrail "Money" Brown is an undersized tackle with college aspirations whose season is threatened by injury and team in-fighting. O.C. Brown—the Tigers most talented playmaker—follows a Blind Side-like path, moving in with a wealthy family to receive tutoring so that poor grades don't derail potential football scholarships.
Though the players, with their real-life problems and underdog spirits, anchor the film's story, it's Coach Courtney who makes the movie more than just a feel-good sports documentary.
With his spitfire charisma (his halftime speeches are a combination of William Wallis motivation, Cliff Huxtable fatherliness and Rex Ryan emotion), Courtney's own character is revealed as much as any of his players. Dealing with his own struggles with fatherlessness, Courtney sees his job as a chance to give young men the mentorship they need to be winners—no matter the scoreboard says. For Courtney, pre-game prayer, classroom behavior and hard work are just as important as on-the-field effort.
Coach Courtney isn't perfect though: at one point, he tells his team he had to go home and "pray for forgiveness" after their poor play in practice led to a profanity-laced admonishment. During an important game, a sideline miscommunication with a fellow coach leads to a costly on-field mistake. Courtney also admits to not spending time with his own children while working with the players on his team. But, this isn't a movie about people without flaws; it's a movie about people who overcome them.
The filmmakers also choose to narrow their focus, making the story about people, while largely glossing over some of the larger themes. Race and class dynamics are alluded to, but not deeply explored (Courtney is wealthy and Caucasian, and his players are nearly all African-American and from poor families). Local economic conditions are shown, but the underlying political and social issues aren't ever discussed in any depth. Religion, prayer and faith are obvious parts of Courtney's values as a coach and mentor, but are only addressed or shown in passing.
But, because of the film's self-styled tight focus, Undefeated has no agenda. It's not a movie about race or politics or religion, or even about football for that matter. It's a movie about adversity, and showing why the key to overcoming it isn't always just by pressing through; but by finding someone to lead the way.
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