Coach Bill Courtney calls his Manassas Tigers a second-half team. It’s an accurate description for many reasons beyond the football squad’s trouble scoring early in the game, but one that specifically applies to the film made about them by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin for it is in the second half that “Undefeated” transcends the traditional sports doc.
Of course, documentaries always require a bit of luck no matter how skilled the filmmakers are and in the case of “Undefeated,” it’s actually the bad luck of Montrail “Money” Brown, an undersized right tackle who suffers a torn ACL midway through his senior season, which sets off a series of alternately heartbreaking and inspiring moments during a year of football no one could’ve expected.
Ironically, it’s expectations that held me back from immediately embracing “Undefeated” as something special. In reports that the film had been sold at SXSW to the Weinstein Company, a common refrain was a comparison to “The Blind Side” due to one of its storylines and it bears a strong resemblance to “Friday Night Lights” in its aesthetic and, to some degree, its structure before the exceptionally compelling story of the lower-class North Memphis squad takes over.
Lindsay and Martin’s film is full of the extreme close-ups and impressionistic editing that Peter Berg employed for the gritty style that has become code in contemporary cinematic terms for any sports film these days being about “more than just a game,” which poses the intriguing if problematic conceit in a documentary that faux reality has replaced the actual thing in order to be engaging. However, “Undefeated” has no shortcomings in the charm department thanks to the other way the film is like “Lights,” as it’s told primarily from the perspective of its coach, Courtney, the owner of a hardwood lumber company who volunteers at a local high school because football is his true passion.
Undeniably charismatic with a tough love approach towards his players, Courtney has spent six years changing the culture at Manassas from a program that could barely afford uniforms and rarely won games to a competitive team that still doesn’t exactly have the respect of its more affluent rivals in the area, but clearly has a fire that comes directly from its coach. Manassas also has benefitted from the decision of three of the area’s most talented athletes to attend the school despite the fact the Tigers have never won a playoff game.
As Courtney preaches, “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals character,” something that guides “Undefeated” away from scrutinizing the Tigers’ offensive schemes or even spending time with its quarterback in favor of the stories of what have to be its three most interesting players: Brown, the aforementioned right tackle whose playing days will end with high school since he’s too small for a college program and has worked hard both on the field and off to still get accepted somewhere; Chavis Daniels, a junior who didn’t play his sophomore year since he was in a youth detention facility as a result of his serious anger issues; and O.C. Brown, a ridiculous physical specimen at left tackle who has the best chance at a post-high school playing career if only he could pass his college entrance exam.
With just an hour-and-a-half, Lindsay and Martin, who last directed “Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong,” follow a traditional game-by-game chronicle of the season, which contrary to its title begins with a loss and heightens the stakes on every game after, and the time crunch doesn’t really allow for as rich a portrait of its subjects and their community as something like “Hoop Dreams,” but may be nearly as rewarding.
Lindsay and Martin shot over 500 hours of footage in the course of the year and it’s obvious they understand the amount of set-up required to make all their storylines come together in the end. While saving their bullets for “Undefeated”‘s final act means some patience is required as they go through the motions of a small-town underdog story like so many others, the payoff is a series of piercing, direct hits to the heart when the three players and their coach start making decisions about their future and you’re able to appreciate the full gravity of each moment as the person onscreen experiences it. It would be a shame to ruin any of these moments here, but you might need some tissues nearby as Courtney weighs the importance of the family he’s built at Manassas with the one he has at home, Montrail struggles to keep up with school and get back on the field after his debilitating injury, Chavis undergoes an unlikely transformation from a troublemaker to team leader, and O.C. is taken in by an assistant coach’s family to help him prepare for his ACT test (a la “The Blind Side”).
By the time “Undefeated” is over, winning the district title seems as if it’s an afterthought for the Manassas Tigers at the end of the season since they’ve achieved so much else, and likewise the film is a triumph not because Lindsay and Martin document the rise of a winning program, but because they’ve captured something far more winning about the goodness of people and a strength that isn’t limited to physical prowess.
“Undefeated” will be released by the Weinstein Company.