Reviewed by: Robert Munro

It’s not hard to understand why Undefeated won the Academy Award for Best Documentary this year. An underdog tale of a little-known high school football team which defies the odds to go on an undefeated run, aided by their inspirational volunteer coaches. Any cynicism at how clichéd that all sounds is soon swept away by the gentle honesty of the film and those it portrays.

Coach Bill, as the players call him, has coached the Manassas Tigers for the past 6 years on a voluntary basis. He does it for the love of the game and for the love of the kids under his tutelage. Manassas High School, and their story, seems familiar to those of us across the pond due to the prevalence of high school football dramas such as the excellent Friday Night Lights (both the film and, particularly, the tv series). That the film still surprises, entertains and offers genuine warmth is a credit to the filmmakers.

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Like the fictional East Dillon Lions from the aforementioned Friday Night Lights, the Manassas Tigers are not a well equipped high school football team. They are an impoverished side, relying on the generosity of their volunteer coaches. Incidentally, the fact that the majority of the coaches are white, while all the players are black, is never touched upon. The film makes no attempt to patronise its viewers by offering any simplistic assumptions about the protagonists. This isn’t a story of wealthy white people help out poor black people. This isn't The Blind Side.

And here-in lies the film’s strength. It is an uncluttered and unaffected portrayal of a successful season for the team, and the trials and tribulations that the young men have to go through in order to compete as a team, rather than as a bunch of self-centred individuals. Which, let’s face it, most teenagers are. There are fights between players, season-threatening injuries, bashful romance and inspirational team talks, but none of it feels false.

We reach genuine moments of insight and warmth through bumbling, ineloquent interactions between the players, such as when the ill-tempered but slightly reformed Chavis accepts an award for his contribution to the team by appreciating the hardship gone through by injured team-mate Money – the same player he’d been scrapping with at the beginning of the season. And it is in these little details and moments that filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin capture something quite heartening and, it must be noted, they capture it rather beautifully.

There’s something inherently cinematic about the American variety of football, which just doesn’t translate successfully into the sport we call by that name. Even at this level, when teenagers are scrapping somewhat inelegantly, there’s something titanic and narratively satisfying about the ebb and flow of the game. The rain lashing down, the glare from the floodlights, the mud-splattered players and the coach hollering from the sidelines all combine to make each match a cinematic delight.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2012
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Undefeated packshot
Meet the coach who is determined to help Mannassas High School football team overcome their 110 year losing streak.

Director: Dan Lindsay, TJ Martin

Starring: Bill Courtney

Year: 2011

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: United States


Doc/Fest 2012

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