Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Undefeated is a documentary that tells the story of the 2009 Manassas Tigers high school football team from Memphis, Tennessee. Head coach Bill Courtney attempts to lead his team, centred around a group of seniors who he has been training for years, on a winning season for the first time in decades in hopes of taking them to the Play-Offs and for the first time ever, win a Play-Off game.
One benefit Undefeated has over fictional sports films is that you’re never quite sure what is going to happen to the team. The in-game footage is so heavily edited that it just gives you a very brief highlight of what happened in each game. This proves enough to keep sports fans entertained without alienating the rest of the audience while the knowledge that the narrative will play it in a more realistic fashion surprisingly adds weight to the big games themselves. Even the title is misleading, Undefeated suggests a team that never loses and then proceeds to dispel this with the very first game of the season. It leads the audience to the understanding that the title and real content of the film is the individual stories, and they themselves prove the true strength of Undefeated.
Sports films, in particular American Football, always focus on one or two central character developments. Whether it’s the potential superstar player struggling to keep his demons under control in Any Given Sunday, or the whole community pressurising the team to do well in Friday Night Lights to the poor black kid taken in by wealthy white people in The Blind Side. Each of these films plays with these sometimes cliched stories to add emotional depth and empathy toward the audience. Undefeated, being a documentary could be forgiven if it failed to reach the levels of dramatic impact that fictionalised stories can attain, but unbelievably it contains not one, but all sport film cliches within it. It is astounding, but at the heart is a coach who above all else wants the boys in his team to succeed and understand that there is more to life than their less-than-wholesome upbringings might suggest.
Undefeated focuses some attention on Coach Bill Courtney’s own life, growing up without a father figure and now desperate to provide for his own four kids and his entire team in this way. It is heart-breaking and inspirational to see a man spreading his emotional time so thin in hopes of giving something back to a group of young men who haven’t got much in the way of inspiration in their lives. In fact if their is a failing in Undefeated it’s that there is so much story in here that it feels too short a time to spend with such an interesting and engaging group of people. A multi-part documentary might have worked better to allow the audience to get stuck into the variety of mini-stories within the team.
Regardless of this minor niggle, Undefeated is one of the most uplifting, incredible true stories. Combining the best elements of previous sports film dramas it keeps you engaged throughout and even non-fans of sports will see that at its heart it’s the story of a man trying to create a father figure for a group of young men who’ve never had one.