Undefeated (review)

Undefeated green light

I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): so not a fan of American football

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I couldn’t possibly be less interested in American football, but this film — the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Documentary — is extraordinary in how it turns upside-down the typical feel-good, triumph-of-the-underdogs tropes of the subgenre. Not that Undefeated is “feel-bad,” mind you, just that it eschews clichés and easy answers to intractable problems as it highlights just how wrongheaded some of those clichés and tropes are. The high-school football team in the very depressed town of North Memphis, Tennessee — an institution from which students more typically continue on to prison rather than college — has been something of a joke in the region: other, better schools used to pay them for a game, for a guaranteed win, they were that bad… which only fueled a downward spiral of demoralized players who couldn’t be bothered to shape up and win games. Enter coach Bill Courtney. Filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin are there, often quite intimately, for his frustrations and, once in a rare while, victories as he attempts to inspire his players, overcome their on-field injuries and the outside baggage that drags down their spirit, and simply reach out to kids who are, in many cases, sorely lacking adult role models or indeed anyone who cares enough to kick them in the ass when they need it. But here’s the kicker: Courtney is not a school employee. He’s a volunteer who fits in the rigorous demands of leading this team in between running his own business and spending time with his own family. (In one stinger of a scene, Courtney chews out misbehaving players while noting that his own son is playing in his first game at that very moment, which Courtney is missing because he’s having to deal with these kids.) What Undefeated gets is what so many other similar films fail to appreciate: Courtney’s selflessness, no matter how generous and how beneficial to those in his immediate vicinity, is not a reasonable solution to the endemic problems that see the kids of North Memphis growing up in such harsh circumstances. Charity might work in this small instance, but at what cost? It can be withdrawn at any moment, and it requires that Courtney neglect himself and his own life. Which he does. He is an amazing person. I’m not criticizing him but the notion that charity is a viable solution for the many problems of American society… a notion that the film gently underscores as well. This is, in some ways, a real-life Blind Side — in fact, one of Courtney’s black players does go to live with a white family to get tutoring to up his grades — without the pabulum that lets viewer assume that what ails us as a nation is fixed.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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