Film review: Undefeated
THE winner of this year’s Academy Award for best documentary sounds pretty resistible since a) it’s yet another movie about an underdog sports team, and b) they play American football, where men in leggings take part in a densely ruled game that looks like contact chess.
Director: Daniel Lindsay, TJ Martin
Running time: 113 minutes
It seems a rum time to release any sort of sports movie too: aren’t we all glued to Olympic telly at the moment, except for the PE atheists, who are rocking gently and trying to find unwatched episodes of Wallander on BBC 4? But Undefeated is surprisingly gripping, even if what they are doing on the pitch looks like Swedish to me.
The Manassas Tigers of Memphis are a squad of teens from an impoverished high school. Ask how many have two parents who graduated, and no hand is raised. But when the question is how many students have a close relative in jail, nearly every hand goes up.
Filmmakers Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin trail the boys for a year through every training session, dressing room dressing-down and pigskin toss, and the centre of their world is their volunteer coach Bill Courtney, the sweaty white owner of a nearby timber company, who treats his players to surrogate-parent pep talks and a bunch of Christian invocations larded with vivid profanities. But Courtney has his own issues, not least a nagging feeling that playing dad to a football team may come at the expense of a relationship with his own four children.
Three of his players stick in the mind: OC Brown is a hulk who needs extra classes. Chavis Daniels is a linebacker with incendiary anger issues, while “Money” Brown looks like the best candidate for a sports scholarship until he gets an injury that may bench him for the rest of the year. “Getting out” is the overriding refrain of all three. They don’t even aim as high as professional football leagues – getting to college would be a major achievement.
Tutors won’t travel to OC’s neighbourhood where he lives with his grandmother, so Courtney’s assistant coach takes the boy into his home for a few days a week. There OC marvels at the huge house and even the morning suburban joggers. Back where he lives with his grandma “they’d think I was running from the police”.
This may sound a little like The Blind Side, a gloopy Sandra Bullock movie where black players are given a helping hand by nice rich white folks.
What saves it is the commitment of the kids. “I’ll die for you tonight,” Chavis tells Courtney when he gets his shot. And few Hollywood movies would make a drama about learning patience and to apologise. Above all, the undramatic way people do enormous kindnesses for others makes Undefeated feel like an honest and deserved win.
Vue (Omni) and Cameo, Edinburgh; The Belmont, Aberdeen, all Tuesday
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