Thursday, February 16, 2012

UNDEFEATED: high-school football immor-talized in the new doc by Lindsay & Martin

TrustMovies is no football fan. No sports fan at all, actually. He didn't even bother, much to the incredulity of the check-out girl at Trader Joe's the following morning, to watch this year's Super Bowl. So when he tells you how appreciative he is of (and impressed with) the new documentary UNDEFEATED from the filmmaking team of Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who also gave us that odd Beer Pong documentary, take this praise under advisement. That the movie was also surprisingly shortlisted and then included among the five nominees for a Best Documentary "Oscar" should not be overlooked, either.

Misters Lindsay and Martin (shown at left, with Lindsay on the right) have given us yet another one of those stories from the American South (The Help, anyone?) in which a white person enables a group of blacks to better succeed. Unlike The Help however, this film is a documentary and so it will be more difficult for naysayers to ignore or disparage it. Undefeated tells the story of a chubby volunteer football coach who determines to build a good football team at a school where none had formerly existed. How he knew that these kids could even play football, let alone become a viable and important team, is something of a mystery. Perhaps good coaches innately know these things. In any case, this one -- Bill Courtney, shown below (he's the white guy in blue) -- certainly did. And those football players -- and hell, the world we live in -- are better for it.

How all this happens is the stuff of Undefeated, and some extraordinarily wonderful but believable stuff it is, too. This is the kind of movie in which the filmmakers are able to get you so far inside their subjects, moment-to-thrilling-moment, that you find yourself holding your breath as one damn thing after another unfurls in front of you. And those things are not just football plays. You come to know these players, too -- particularly three of them: O.C., "Money" and Chavis -- surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that when you perceive something about to go amiss, you also know why and what will come of it. The filmmakers may have had extraordinary access to their subjects. More than that, though, is how they were able to capture so much, from tiny, intimate details of family life to the football games as they're being played. Talk about fly-on-the-wall verité: Here it is, in spades. And no pun intended.

Some of the scenes with the boys -- involving home life, scholarships, and each other -- are so moving that you may be surprised at the strength of your own reactions. And Coach Courtney is something else: a superlative made up of much smaller-scale positives. He's a good man, an honest man, and a smart man. "You think that football builds character?" he asks early on. "It does not. It reveals character." The film then proceeds to reveal a lot of that big C, whether it's showing us Courtney at his place of work (his coaching is just "volunteer," remember) or his place of worship (the religion here seems remarkably untainted by hypocrisy); Chavis (shown above), who has come from a youth penitentiary and has some major anger management issues; O.C., (shown at right in helmet, two photos above, with his coach), who must somehow keep his grade average afloat and test well for college; and "Money," the guy who tries the hardest, lives with his grandmother, and who, among other things, talks sweetly about his pet turtle.

As the football season moves along and initial loss turns to victory -- and more -- we're with the players and their coach every step of the way. Alternately moving, grueling, funny and inspiring, Undefeated is competing with one of my favorite film of the year, Pina, for Best Documentary (if that isn't apples against oranges, what is?). Another fine film is in the mix, too, If A Tree Falls, which tackles an incendiary subject and gives it a fine, fair and focused hearing. Good luck in choosing. Well, as Undefeated teaches us, winning is not everything. In fact, it's losing, rather than winning, that better builds character, notes our now favorite coach. His, and his team's, movie opens tomorrow Friday, February 17, in New York (at the AMC Lincoln Square, and the Landmark Sunshine) and in Los Angeles (at the Arclight Hollywood, The Landmark, and the Rave 18).

No comments: