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"Feel-good movie of the year" is rarely a label that applies to documentaries. Yet, the Oscar-nominated Undefeated, which follows one season of an impoverished inner-city Memphis high school football team, may turn out to be exactly that.
When lumber salesman by day and volunteer football coach by evening Bill Courtney first assumes responsibility for the Manassas Tigers, the team hasn't won a game in 10 years. The program is so underfunded, its players are participating in a pay-for-play arrangement-they agree to act as tackling dummies at wealthy schools' homecoming games in exchange for some free pizza and a few fat checks. Things begin to change after Courtney takes over. He organizes Manrise, a booster club to raise funds, and convinces some promising eighth-graders to stay in the district. By 2009 the Tigers are in position to achieve something the school hasn't managed in its entire 110-year history-to win a playoff game.
Big, blustery, and often emotional, Courtney gives pep-talks that sound like they came straight out of a Friday Night Lights script ("Young men of character, discipline, and commitment end up winning in life. Football doesn't build character, it reveals it," he reminds his players.) He also prays with the boys and spends so much of his time trying to help them envision greater possibilities for their lives, he worries he's shortchanging his own kids.
An old-school straight-talkin', rough-housin' type, Courtney admits he has to ask for forgiveness on Sunday for all the things he's said on the field Monday through Friday. If there has been a concern in recent years that Christ's church is suffering from a lack of masculinity, then men like Courtney are the antidote. His faith isn't the arm's-length, pew-proper kind, but rather the getting-your-hands-in-the-nets-with-the local-fishermen type. (The PG-13 rating earned by his frequently salty language fondly remind me of my grandfather who, while the best example I've had of faith prompting works, also sometimes slips into sailor-speak.)
Responding in the Daily Beast to critics who contend their movie about a white man coaching black kids avoids issues of race, filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who lived in Memphis and followed their stars closely for almost a year, said, "It wasn't an issue. If we had made it an issue it would have been irresponsible of us." Something Lindsay and Martin do make an issue of, however, is the specter of fatherlessness that hangs over nearly everyone in this film.
In the midst of suffering, Romans 8:28 can feel like an empty bromide. But when Courtney talks about the pain he experienced when his own father abandoned him and how it drives him to reach out to his players, we see how his seemingly bound-up wounds are being used to a glorious purpose. The boys he's coaching need someone who can empathize with the anger and lack of discipline that come from growing up without a father but who doesn't use it as an excuse to set low expectations for them. What makes a man in general, and an honorable man in particular, is a frequent topic of conversation between Courtney and the three young men the film highlights most.
More often than not, Courtney's players rise to the standards he demands of them. As expected, given the chaotic and impoverished background most of them have endured, the ascents aren't always smooth, and they suffer plenty of juvenile setbacks. But with their coach's alternating encouragement and berating, they achieve victory over their destructive impulses.
Whether those victories will continue as their subjects grow into manhood, the filmmakers cannot say. But we are left with the feeling that if enough Bill Courtneys come into their lives, they will.
Those who complain about the negative portrayals of Christians in film should not miss this opportunity to celebrate a first-rate entry in the underdog sports genre that also happens to offer a striking portrait of Christ's love in action.