As a Brit with little knowledge of the sport, high school American Football has become an unlikely obsession for me over the last few months. There’s a reason for that – it unexpectedly makes for extraordinarily compelling drama. Undefeated won the ‘best documentary’ category at the last Oscars but whilst fact normally follows fiction, it follows hot off the heels of critically acclaimed (but little watched) TV series Friday Night Lights (2006-10) which had me in rapture as I discovered the emotional highs and lows of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas and its gracefully developed characters. Despite enormous similarities, Undefeated is unrelated from FNL but provides a similarly emotional and poignant exploration of this hugely competitive and pressured school sport which for many offers a ‘way out’ for kids from troubled lives and a chance to get into college but just as importantly – a chance to learn the values of discipline, teamwork and character.
Undefeated chronicles a season in the life of Manassas High School from North Memphis, a hugely deprived and de facto all-African American school, hugely lacking in funding for academic purposes, let alone for sports. The issue of race is glaringly apparent throughout the film but left in the background despite the frightening reality of segregation. If the film has a fault, it maybe focuses too much on the lives of a small handful of characters rather than taking a step back to look at their social circumstances. The Manassas Tigers have historically struggled, never winning a playoff game in their 110 year history but now coached by Bill Courtney, whose inspirational team talks are really something to behold, while providing a strong male role model most of these fatherless boys lack (can you see the parallels, FNL fans?).
The film follows clear stories which will undoubtedly leave many teary eyed as it’s hard not to be touched by watching these troubled boys becoming men. “Football reveals character” says the Coach. “The character of a man is not measured in how he handles his wins, but in how he handles his failures”. Undefeated is inspiring, delicate and far more than a football film. While the threads the film follows all end slightly more brightly than seems accurate for a thorough portrait of the fate of these deprived kids, it has many really honest human moments that provide sincerity and faith. It doesn’t preach – just a thoroughly well made and touching documentary.
Review by David Rank
Undefeated is out now in the UK. Certificate 12a (UK). Running time 113 mins.
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