What was the best documentary of the last year? That would be Senna, right? Well, not according to The Academy who failed to put Asif Kapadia’s film on even the shortlist for last year’s Best Documentary Feature award (a decision which was arguably a contributing factor behind a change of rules for the category). Senna eventually snagged a well-deserved BAFTA, but on the other side of the pond there was a surprise Oscar-winner in the category in the form of another sports documentary, Undefeated.
But when you consider that the American Football centric doc had the campaigning super-team of the Weinsteins and Sean “Diddy” Combs behind it, is that gong necessarily a mark of quality? Well, quite simply, yes. And an emphatic yes at that. It may be a completely different beast to Senna in regards to its form and the perspective from which it approaches its chosen sport, but in terms of quality and the raw emotion they exude the two films may just be on a par.
Undefeated follows the Mempis-based high school team the Manassas Tigers, a perennial losing side who may be on the verge of a season of greatness thanks to a talented group of young players who have been nurtured and developed over the past six years by their coach Bill Courtney. Courtney is the figure around whom the team and the film is built. He’s a man whose drive to make his team successful is seemingly only matched by his desire to act as a father figure to a group of young men whose lives could quite easily stray down the wrong path. The time and commitment that this requires, however, eventually leads the coach to question whether he’s neglecting his own family.
Like all of the best in the genre, the drama comes from the individuals and their personal struggles rather than simply showing the sporting action unfold. As well as Coach Courtney the filmmakers focus their attention on three key players: O.C. Brown, the team’s star player whose college scholarship is under threat due to academic issues; Chavis Daniels, a talented individual who suffers from anger issues and is returning to the team after serving 15 months in juvenile detention; and Montrail ‘Money’ Brown, a determined kid who sees his future off the field who experiences an unexpected setback during the season.
The drama comes in unexpected moments, with one scene involving Courtney delivering a piece of news to ‘Money’ during a training session in particular packing a devastatingly emotional punch. But it’s not just that these moments catch you off guard, it’s that by the time they arrive you’re completely invested in these young men and that you know how high the stakes are for them. You may not always like them all or be able to understand their actions, but you can’t help but feel and root for them, whilst Coach Courtney is the man with whom you can identify.
And like Courtney, if you’re invested in the kids then you’re invested in the plight of the team too, and this is one of those sports films that you won’t want to know the running time of going in. Of course the action on field action has a big impact on these characters off the field too, and as ever American Football lends itself perfectly as a dramatic structure for the rest of the story to be told around. Oh, and don’t be fooled by the title either – after losing their first contest of the season the team and individuals are quickly forced to redefine what it means to be undefeated. In a week where sporting greatness is taking over the television screens, why not sample it on the big screen too.