Oscar winner upbeat, but doesn't go deep
There are lines in Undefeated clearly marked on the playing field: five-yard increments, end zones, the out-of-bounds perimeter.
And while the other lines depicted in Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin's Oscar-winning documentary about a high school football team and its tireless coach aren't etched in chalk on grass and dirt, they're every bit as evident: lines of race, class, money.
Shooting for an entire year at Manassas High, a just-about-all-black high school in the graffitied rubble of North Memphis, Tenn., fimmakers Lindsay and Martin follow a group of uncertain kids as they come together to turn history around: In its 110 years, no Manassas team has ever won a playoff game.
The Manassas Tigers are so pitiful, in fact - and so under-funded - that they take money from other Tennessee schools to get walloped in practice games. They're a joke.
But not to Bill Courtney, a local businessman who has volunteered his time to coach the academically and economically challenged high schoolers. Big and blustery, with an arsenal of motivational maxims at his disposal, Courtney takes the guys under his wing. The owner of a lumber company, and a husband and father, he pretty much forsakes his own family to strategize with, and sermonize to, the towering, tattooed teenagers of Manassas.
Undefeated's focus is on Courtney, then, waxing profound as he steers his minivan to practice sessions and games. It is also on three of the Tigers under his tutelage: Montrail "Money" Brown, a smallish but resilient offensive lineman and one of the few teammates getting good grades in class; Chavis Daniels, a hotheaded running back, just out of a youth penitentiary; and O.C. Brown, a fleet-footed, 315-pound right tackle who's already on the college scouts' radar, but whose shaky test scores may keep him from advancing.
Like a verité The Blind Side, Undefeated is about an affluent white person who mentors and time-manages low-income black football kids. And like the hit Sandra Bullock film, Lindsay and Martin's documentary doesn't delve as deeply as it should into its characters' lives. Despite plenty of face time and rounds of self-questioning and rumination, Courtney, for one, remains enigmatic - we never fully understand why he's obsessed with running the Manassas team. There's more going on here than mere beneficence, or some serious jock jones.
But as it proved with academy members, who voted for it over strong competition (including Wim Wenders' transcendental Pina), Undefeated is undeniably inspirational stuff.