Bleary eyes, full heart – Undefeated review

Undefeated – Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. Originally published July 6, 2012. By Simon Miraudo.

Undefeated plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 18, 2012. It arrives on DVD October 3. This review was first run during the Revelation Perth International Film Festival.

There’s only room in one’s life for a certain number of passions. Hopefully family and friends take up the first two places, and then the rest of your obsessions follow. As any fanatic will tell you though, the order is fairly malleable. When I worked at a record store, music was my primary love. Now, the majority of my time is devoted to film. There were, however, pockets when sports played a very important part too; when AFL Grand Finals were watched (and re-watched), NBL magazines were subscribed to, and collectable cards were, well, collected. The years passed, and as I increasingly realised that girls existed and were both more fun and exhausting to fixate on, ‘competitive sports’ slipped down my hierarchy of needs. These days, my attention span no longer accommodates following a team for an entire season, and with every passing year my physique grows more critic-y, thus my desire to play sports dwindles further.

Thankfully, I can still get my fix from books and movies on the topic. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar winning documentary Undefeated is one of the best I’ve seen in some time, and as far as American Football flicks go, it’s the closest to touching the greatness of H.G. Bissinger’s tome Friday Night Lights and Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side. Not only is it inspirational and stirring and blah blah blah like you would expect, it questions the way in which we prioritise the game over other aspects of our being. In the instance of a coach neglecting his young kids in favour of his team of misfits, he’s unwittingly mimicking the neglect of his own father from years earlier. But in the case of the troubled teens on his squad, it offers them an escape from their bleak existence and presents them with opportunities for the future. Undefeated depicts football as a prison and liberator, and watching the subjects wrestle with that dichotomy amounts to a supremely affecting experience.

Lindsay and Martin follow a struggling Memphis senior high school team, the Manassas Tigers, over the course of their final season. Coach Bill Courtney – an unpaid volunteer – devotes every spare second to getting the best of his players, and also preparing them for life after the lights. The freakishly fast and physically imposing O.C. Brown eyes a college scholarship, yet he must first get the grades to secure a place on a university team. Montrail ‘Money’ Brown (no relation) is a smart kid with the world at his feet, until a twist of fate threatens to ruin it all. And Chavis Daniels, recently released from juvenile detention, could be a star himself, so long as he can keep his anger in check.

If Undefeated‘s narrative were scripted, it would be impossible to deny the similarities between it and the football features that have come before it. Lindsay and Martin do well to not oversell the naturally emotional moments, and don’t condescend to merely make this an underdog-triumphs-against-adversity tale. What it has over so many movies of this nature is the richness of these three characters, lovingly and doggedly pushed towards success by their heroic couch. That it’s all real only lifts the stakes. The final act offers plenty of cathartic moments that will likely reduce even the most stiff-upper-lipped viewer into a babbling mess. Though it never quite captures the at-home situation of its players or comments on society at large like Hoop Dreams – this genre’s pinnacle – Undefeated is a poignant, rousing, and tear-juicing portrait of one man, three boys, and a winning team built on the backs of their determination. During one game, a Tiger struggles to free the ball, with opponents desperately pulling him down. O.C. grabs his team mate’s helmet, and drags him – with the other players still holding on – as far as he can across the field. You won’t get a better, unscripted metaphor for their strength of character and resolve than that.

4.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Undefeated plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 18, 2012. It arrives on DVD October 3.

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