Now in theatres: UNDEFEATED
Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin’s intimate look at a North Memphis high school football team made its debut at SXSW last year. It later screened at Toronto and Dubai, among others, and is one of five non-fiction features in contention for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Like its subjects, the Manassas Tigers, this documentary snuck up seemingly out of nowhere. Despite slots at notable fests, and some good early reviews, the film wasn’t on many people’s radar until the Oscar shortlist. Personally, I’ve been clear here in the past that sports docs often leave me cold unless the filmmakers also craft a compelling story that can appeal to the uninitiated – viewers who aren’t already fans of the particular team or sport on display. Unfortunately, a great many docs that I come across each year fail to do so. In the case of Lindsay and Martin’s film, thankfully, they recognize the need to connect audiences beyond the base concern of who will win and who will lose a particular game. Instead, they have crafted a remarkably touching, inspiring, and accessible film that will make grown men cry. Beyond the appeal of an underdog story, which this most certainly is – the Tigers have had a disastrous 110-year history, never once winning a playoff game – the doc works as a potent study of masculinity and character. The four main characters – Coach Bill Courtney, a father figure to his young charges who lack male role models; OC, whose ticket out of poverty is a college scholarship; Chavis, who struggles to stay on the team due to anger issues; and Money, an overachiever both academically and athletically, despite a small frame – have invested much in football, but, as Courtney reminds his team, the sport doesn’t build character – it reveals it. How they each handle the ups and downs of the season sets them up to face the future and be undefeated, whether or not they win the game.