- Movie Rating -

Undefeated (2011)

| July 15, 2011

The football team of Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1899 (that is not a typo). We are surprised until we get a look at the team. They are teenagers who are disorganized, hot-headed, self-centered and completely focused on everything but the game itself. That isn’t a dig at them personally; the film provides backgrounds to help us understand them as human beings. Based on their frustrations and poor self-esteem, we aren’t surprised when their overly dedicated coach Bill Courtney frequently loses his cool.

Undefeated is a documentary that follows this team in a way that no fiction film ever could. Given to a Hollywood screenwriter, it would have become a forgettable formula underdog story. The kids on the team, all 17 and 18 years old, come from inner-city neighborhoods that offer few opportunities. Familial support is at a minimum because most of the players have fathers who are either absent, dead or have adopted a revolving door policy with the family. At one point, the coach asks for a show of hands, asking how of the guys on the team have a parent who went to college: one hand. Then he asks how many have two parents who went to college: no hands. Finally he asks how many have a parent in jail: nearly everyone raises their hands. What becomes apparent is that Bill Courtney, a good man who steps far beyond the call of duty, is the first symbol of male influence that these kids have ever had.

Coach Courtney understands a little about their dilemma. He lost his own father at a young age and sees their isolation and their frustration. He tries to get them to understand that they are better than their circumstances and their dispiriting environment. We see their surroundings. Manassas, as depicted in the film, once held a place of prominence. It was a thriving, working-class area due to the big Firestone plant, but when that closed down, so too did the town. Businesses don’t grow there, and what we see are shadows of a formerly proud neighborhood, now run-down and forgotten.

The film follows a handful of the team members and shows the influence that Coach Courtney has on them. Most of the kids have sour attitudes, get into fights (often with each other) and storm off in a huff. What is impressive is the way the coach stays after them. One kid, named Money, storms out of the school auditorium, outside, off school grounds, and down the road. The coach follows him, trying to reason with him and eventually retrieves his truck to catch up with him.

The film focuses on several of the students but Courtney remains the central focus. He’s a hard working man who has been coaching at Manassas for six years and is often frustrated by his team’s inability to want to better themselves. His dedication takes a toll on his home life because he is beginning to miss opportunities with his own children. One very strong scene takes place at the dinner table where he and his wife discuss the problems with his lack of attention to his family.

The film resembles “Hoop Dreams” in that it focuses less on the sport than on the lives of those involved. This one focuses on the coach more than the players. Courtney often loses his temper, and the camera moves from him to his players seated in chairs, lopped-over as if they simply don’t care. His dedication to them eventually comes back out on the playing field and the movie has a very happy ending that made me smile (one development made me tear up).

Undefeated made me realize just how often we focus on the negative. How many news stories are flooded with blood and violence and people doing horrible things? That’s why documentaries are so invaluable, because we get inside the mind and the motivations of people like Bill Courtney. Courtney is a dedicated man who is attempting to do what is necessary to change a young man’s life. He does that, and we hope that the seeds of his goodwill will last.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2011) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized