In the world of cinema, sports stories are common, derivatively so. Regardless of whether they are fictional, inspired by true events or documenting actual true events, they all seem to follow the same formula, but it’s a formula that works and has proven itself to time and time again. Last year’s The Fighter and 2009’s The Blind Side proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt with multiple Oscar nominations and positive word of mouth. Although the new documentary, Undefeated, follows the same trajectory of those films—kids in a rundown neighborhood overcome their hardships to achieve success—there’s something about it that makes it seem unlike anything that has come before. It’s inspiring, heartfelt and truly wonderful. This isn’t some manipulative, manufactured Hollywood tale. This is a real, deeply human experience and it hits you hard. I haven’t felt such emotional joy in a long time and if you’re willing to give this film a chance, I’ll bet you’ll feel the same.
The Manassas Tigers high school football team of North Memphis in Tennessee has never won a playoff game. In their 110 year existence, not once have they been able to say they were among the best in the area. Undefeated is about that—a team who, under the supervision of volunteer Coach Bill Courtney, finally begins to achieve success—but it doesn’t limit itself to on the field antics. Courtney doesn’t just take it upon himself to turn the football program at the school around. He implants himself in these kids’ lives and teaches them to respect each other, molding them into the people he knows they can be.
These kids have had a rough time growing up. Almost none of them have parents who have graduated college and most have relatives serving jail time. Their neighborhood is a shantytown, populated with run down houses and trash littering the street. They have no money and struggle to get by. They start fights over trivial matters, like someone sitting too close to them, and their attitudes are sometimes hateful, to the point where cops won’t even allow them to shake hands with the opposing team after a game in fear of a fight. It’s easy to look at them and conclude that they’re more likely to end up behind bars themselves than have a winning season.
It would be easy to fall into a life of crime when surrounded by so much negativity, but there’s one thing that keeps these kids from deviating too far from the path of nobility: football. As crazy as it may seem, especially with a team who hadn’t been able to achieve much of anything in past years, football means everything to some of them. It keeps them busy, motivated and off the streets. It gives them a sense of camaraderie and ignites friendships, even though their care for each other sometimes dissipates into petty squabbling.
But every time a conflict breaks out, Coach Courtney is there to fix it. His words are powerful and he manages to calm them down and correct them, even at the cost of his own sanity. He wants to win games, of course—what coach doesn’t?—and he amps his kids up for that purpose, but his intentions go so much deeper. He shapes their lives and teaches them the importance of unselfishness and kindness. He personally intervenes whenever he can because, in a way, he considers himself a father to them, a figure many of them don’t actually have. After six years coaching that team, Coach Courtney may not have an overall winning record, but he’s nevertheless the type of coach all coaches everywhere should strive to be like.
Undefeated is a movie worthy of tears, but not out of sadness. This is a hopeful movie and it shows just how great we as humans can be when we show a little bit of compassion for those around us. Aside from a couple seniors who ended up going off to college (and one playing for the Southern Mississippi football team), I have no idea where these kids are or where they will end up, but the film leaves you with unflinching hope that they’ll continue with the lessons they’ve learned from Coach Courtney and make something of themselves. If even one of them does, Courtney will have done something truly amazing and it all begins with what you see in this film. Undefeated is intense, exciting, emotional and wonderfully uplifting. It’s not to be missed.
Undefeated receives 5/5