With a title that already hints at an inspirational story, the recent Academy Award winner for Best Documentary “Undefeated” sounds like a typically uplifting, tearjerking underdog film. However, “Undefeated” transcends this archetype with its portrayal of the 2009 football season of Manassas High School, during which the players aim to win the first playoff game in their school’s 110-year history. Although it also documents the remarkable statistical victory of a football team, “Undefeated” proves to be more than just a football documentary; it also depicts the transformation of underprivileged teens into star athletes as well as mature men of character.
“Undefeated” traffics in the classic tale of the little sports team that could, and the film makes it easy to root for the Manassas Tigers. Before its resurrection, the team would sell their home games to the highest bidder to serve as an easy defeat for other schools. But in the spring of 2004, Bill Courtney, a former high school football player and coach, volunteers to turn Manassas around. Coach Courtney trains the 17-member team by focusing more on building integrity in the young men than on winning games. In doing so, he turns them into the most brilliant team Manassas has ever had.
Set in inner-city Memphis, the film depicts the actual neighborhoods and homes from which these young men came. The movie chronicles income disparity in the United States through screenshots that capture ramshackled houses, iron-fenced parks, and unkempt streets. The camera lingers on both still and moving shots of these backgrounds, forcing the viewer to take in the full context of the film. In this way, directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin add breadth to the documentation of the struggles of the inner-city teens by fully portraying the poverty of their circumstance.
Not only is the cinematography key to establishing the setting of “Undefeated,” but it also weaves into the documentary’s storyline. The way the camera focuses on the faces of team members, schoolteachers, and coaches during dialogue adds intensity to their words. The camera work emphasizes the significance of the conversations in which the coaches and schoolteachers reiterate to the young men the importance of academics. As the camera focuses on a player’s face, he fearfully asks, “Where we goin’ go after high school football?” For the Manassas players, football makes attending college possible through potential scholarships, so the players fear that if they don’t perform well enough, they will not be able to improve their economic situation. When the camera captures the player’s expression, the stark reality these young men face is evident.
To contrast the strife of the future, the camera style then changes during the football games to emphasize the spirit and breathless nature of the game. During each game, the camera swoops across the crowd, reflecting the whirling excitement both the spectators and players feel. With the games set at nighttime and the camera furiously caputing the scoreboard, the cinematography expresses the dark, hurried reality of the players’ future is on the literal and metaphorical line.
Through the Bildungsroman of the young men of the Manassas football team, the film overfills with pain and redemption. Refreshingly, football is only an auxiliary concept in this movie. As Coach Courtney states, the sport is merely a way to “reach your hearts through something you love.” At its core, “Undefeated” challenges assumptions about the potential of underprivileged teens just as Coach Courtney challenges his players to see that life, like football, is about heart and character.
“Character is not about how you handle your successes but how you handle your failures,” Courtney says. With such an in-depth portrayal of the characters and their story, “Undefeated” need not worry as it is a clear winner.