The biggest problem with “Undefeated” is that it’s too perfect. An army of top Hollywood hacks couldn’t have cooked up a tough-luck high school sports story more rousing, touching or inspiring.
But despite its familiar underdog narrative — complete with a playoff-game finale that comes down to a final minute and single point — “Undefeated” isn’t the product of a screenwriter’s pen: It’s a rough-and-tumble cinema-verite documentary stitched together from real people and their real lives.
That doesn’t mean no one shaped the story. Indeed, the art in a film like this is all in choosing what story to tell and how to tell it. And in “Undefeated,” which won a much-deserved Oscar for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards, directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin made all the right choices.
“Undefeated” tells the story of the Manassas Tigers, a high school football team from an impoverished neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn. When we first meet the Tigers, they’re coming off a yearslong losing streak: No one thinks they can win, including, perhaps, many of the team members.
No one, at least, except volunteer coach Bill Courtney, a local business owner who seems to love coaching more than just about anything. (It’s telling that his wife and children play only minor roles until near the end.) But like all good inspirational movie coaches, Courtney doesn’t love the game so much as he loves the children on the team — despite all the pain they put him through.
And that’s quite a bit: When we first see Courtney interacting with his team, he’s lecturing them on focus and dedication and stressing the unusual challenges he faces. After reciting a long list of recent incidents — including numerous fights and disciplinary problems — he says, “For most coaches, that would be a career’s worth of crap to put up with.” For Courtney, it’s a typical two weeks.
The players, though, have been through plenty of pain themselves. They have deep anger issues and trouble with academics. Their home lives are marked by poverty, social disconnection, loss and violence. One game ends with cops walking onto the field to make sure the opposing teams don’t get close enough to shake hands for fear of fights, or worse.
For a documentary, it’s gorgeously shot and edited, with shaky handheld close-ups and choppy rhythms clearly meant to evoke “Friday Night Lights.” That’s ironic, given that “Lights’ ” style was meant to evoke documentary realism.
Indeed, Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Martin adhere strictly to the tried-and-true sports-drama formula, focusing on a few of the players and their particular challenges while building the primary narrative out of the arc of the team’s season. There are successes and disappointments, life lessons and teachable moments — and, at the center of it all, a coach who never stops believing. If it were fiction, it would feel tired and contrived, but because it’s been constructed from bits of real life, it works immensely well.
Perhaps too well: The story’s polished perfection sometimes seems too good to be true, which makes it easy to wonder what’s not being shown. Is what you’re seeing real, or is it editing? Truth or cinematic manipulation? As with the best big-screen stories, the answer is probably both.
RATING: PG-13 for harsh locker-room language
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes