“Football doesn’t build character; football reveals character.” Passionate mantras like this one are Manassas High School football coach Bill Courtney’s bread and butter. As the central focus of Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar-nominated documentary Undefeated, Courtney unleashes his firebrand of coach-speak to inspire players to be great men, not just outstanding competitors. In a western Tennessee community debilitated by economic recession and where the football team has long been an embarrassment, Courtney has revitalized the program through six years of sheer will and patience, and countless hours of volunteer work. But what sets Undefeated apart from the usual underdog sports story is how the filmmakers emphasize the importance of mentorship as something separate from on-the-field interactions between coach and player.
Told over the course of a single football season, Undefeated follows Courtney’s relationship with three different players who form the film’s narrative structure. These young men of various personality types and home situations provide a glimpse into the impact of Courtney’s methods. O.C. Brown is a titanic and speedy offensive lineman who’s bound for college if he can get his grades up to par. Sensitive and kind, O.C. is the most stable of Undefeated‘s adolescent focal points. The same can’t be said of linebacker Chavis Daniels and lineman Montrail “Money” Brown, who face the most adversity and take up most of Courtney’s energy. Recently released from a state-run juvenile prison, Chavis returns to his high school’s football team and immediately becomes a disruption, fighting with his teammates and disrespecting his coach. Quiet and confident in demeanor at the start of the film, “Money” is sidetracked after suffering a near-season-ending injury, his good-natured personality darkening in mood because of depression and frustration.
Undefeated frames these tense interlocking stories with flashy editing techniques and dramatic music cues, often sullying the immediacy of Courtney’s musings and the player’s earnest responses with overly stylized aesthetics. Yet the undying theme of resiliency remains true throughout as Courtney preaches to his players the power of rebounding from adversity. This ideological consistency sustains a substantive center that elevates the typical halftime pep talks and team meetings to potentially life-changing moments. Less successful is how Undefeated attempts to contextualize the difficulties surrounding Courtney’s own home life, which is summed up rather simply through fleeting interviews with his wife. Here, the film feels spread too thin in an effort to capture the entire Manassas football mosaic.
Lingering in the background of Undefeated‘s human-interest story is the dire economic realities plaguing this community. Early on, Courtney confesses to funding his program by partaking in “pay games,” exhibitions where wealthier Tennessee high schools from around the state pay inner-city teams to travel long distances and get trounced by better-funded programs. In essence, this is the type of unfair sporting culture Courtney is seen battling against throughout Undefeated, and that he ultimately convinces his players to see past this demeaning practice and find self-worth is a testament to both film and subject.
Aside from Undefeated‘s dedication to Courtney’s relentlessly teaching practices, plenty of the narrative feels like a calculating cross between The Blind Side and Friday Night Lights. When the filmmakers cover O.C.‘s stint staying at a wealthy white family’s home to study, or some of the more tense interactions between Chavis and “Money,” there’s an editorial contrivance that rears its ugly head. It’s as if the filmmakers feel the need to insert melodramatic threads for no other reason than filler. These thinly veiled scenes don’t resonate quite as much, especially without Courtney’s presence.
Nonetheless, Undefeated makes a substantial emotional impact whenever this incredible coach and his powerful words dominate a particular scene. Courtney sums up his professional purpose best when he confesses, “You watch them [players] go from playful little boys to concerned young men.” For Courtney, the sport of football is merely a bridge to ensure that O.C., Chavis, “Money,” and the rest of his flock understand the value of their own transition into responsible adulthood. It’s a sense of newfound self-awareness that will remain priceless for these players, both on and off the field.