Undefeated is yet another depiction of working-class America that posits sports—football, in this case—as a ticket out of the inner-city cycle of poverty and violence. That Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film is set in Memphis and not in, say, Texas, as in Friday Night Lights, to which Undefeated owes a spiritual debt, barely makes a difference; this film pretty much molds the Cinderella season of the Manassas Tigers—a hapless high school football team that had not played one playoff game in its 110-year history before this 2009 season—into a standard underdog sports-movie formula, complete with the expected asides into the personal lives of its tough-minded coach, Bill Courtney, and a handful of its players, all of them seniors wondering what awaits them after high school.
As a result, the film doesn’t really contain much in the way of genuine surprises. Its only noteworthy bit of tweaking comes toward the end, in the way Lindsay and Martin subtly turn the fates of their main characters into the film’s real emotional climax, leaving the outcome of the Tigers’ championship game feeling almost like an afterthought. Undefeated ultimately isn’t so much about the championship season itself as it is about the way some of the team members change and grow as it progresses. Courtney himself voices the film’s overarching point of view when he instills in his players his philosophy that football doesn’t build character as much as it reveals character. Perhaps most dramatic in that regard is the emotional growth of Chavis, the team’s junior linebacker who returns to the team during the 2009 season after having spent 15 months in a youth penitentiary. Will his hot-headedness derail not only the team’s chances at making the playoffs, but also his own immediate and long-term futures? It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they’re able to build as much suspense as they do out of this kind of intimate focus as they do with the larger focus on the games themselves.
What a film like Undefeated never gets around to questioning is whether football really ought to be pushed onto these kids as the goal—their entry into higher education and future success. Aren’t there, dare I say it, other, greater (more fulfilling and long-lasting) ways of helping troubled inner-city youths rise up and transcend their dire circumstances? Undefeated swallows wholesale this notion of success in sports as a measure of success in life—but, of course, it has to, lest a more multifaceted, inquisitive approach threaten to puncture its progress toward uplift. As a film about the role sports plays in American society, it ends where something like Steve James’s Hoop Dreams begins.
Kumaré does for organized religion what Undefeated isn’t quite willing to do with the “religion” of football: prods it, examines it, and considers various perspectives. It doesn’t seem that way at first though. Suggesting an unholy mix of Morgan Spurlock and Sacha Baron Cohen in his approach, Vikram Gandhi, the film’s “star” and director, essentially creates a whole new religion using our increasing national obsession with yoga as a springboard; upon discovering that a lot of the yogis he’s encountered are basically fake even though they try to pass themselves off as authentic, Gandhi—who himself became an agnostic after being raised by his parents to follow Christian teachings—decides to remake himself as a “guru,” create his own practices, and spread his “teachings” to an array of people in Phoenix, Arizona. (He even hires two hot women to act as sidekicks.)
I imagine that that will sound like a cruel prank to many, on the face of it. Kumaré initially seems like it will go down the condescending Borat route and spew a lot of mockery under the guise of “edgy” satire; maybe that was what Gandhi was expecting out of his stunt at the start. But then, a funny thing happens the longer he keeps up this charade: He actually starts to care about the people he’s duping, enough that, even as a fake guru, he genuinely wants to help them with their troubles. This leads to some fraught ethical territory on Gandhi’s part—and Gandhi has just enough of a self-deprecating streak in him to allow us to see the fear he develops as he realizes he has actually grown into his role, and that he will have to reveal himself to his fooled followers eventually.
Compared to a Sacha Baron Cohen, a Morgan Spurlock, or even a Michael Moore, Gandhi comes off as a reasonably self-effacing personality, not given over to thuggish bluster to make his points. He seems like a genuinely curious fellow—curious about the various belief systems that exist in this world and about the people who buy into them even as he himself remains skeptical of organized religion. Even more intriguing, however, is his willingness to question his own methods when his prank starts to go way over his own head. At a certain point, he even comes to the realization that he has connected more with people as a fake guru than he has as himself. Kumaré thus develops a surprising amount of suspense over whether Gandhi will drop the guru act and how his “followers” will react when they discover the truth; that’s certainly more nuance than a prankster like Cohen would ever allow.
Alas, for all its good intentions, Kumaré can’t quite escape a hovering sense that Gandhi is only willing to take his self-examination so far—as if, once discovering that his stunt had spiraled out of his control, he struggled to try to come up with a justification for the whole enterprise that wouldn’t make himself look too foolish at the end. Its ultimate conclusion is that everyone has an “inner guru” in him, separate from any superiors from any organized religion—a bracing notion (and one that I’m personally inclined to agree with), but one that’s explored in this film with equal parts compassionate thoughtfulness and bullshit self-aggrandizement.
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