High school football coach Bill Courtney, the central character of the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, declares that true character is revealed not by how we handle success, but how we handle failure. He frequently falls back on those words as a volunteer coach for Memphis' Manassas High School, whose football team spent years as a punching bag at the homecoming games of better schools.
Undefeated breathlessly follows how the Manassas team ekes its way to a miraculous winning season with Courtney's tough love. The character message recurs off the gridiron as the filmmakers follow three players: O.C. Brown, a gentle giant who struggles academically; Montrail "Money" Brown, whose compact stature belies his big ambitions and drive; and Chavis Daniels, a junior who fights to control a violent temper. Directors Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin not only compile suspenseful game footage, but also tense subplots involving serious injuries and make-or-break college entrance exams.
Courtney makes a great central character, a voluble former car salesman with his heart on his sleeve and four kids at home he neglects during football season. Watching the teammembers' faces, you suspect that Courtney's loud tirades aren't nearly as painful to hear as his soft, disappointed lectures. At times, Undefeated echoes The Blind Side in its portrayal of more privileged white families assisting young black athletes from inner city neighborhoods.
Over the course of making Undefeated, the filmmakers were doubly blessed. First, their choice of subject paid off far better than they could have imagined when filming began. Second, Undefeated was picked for distribution by the Weinstein brothers, whose skill at Oscar campaigning no doubt helped drive the film to its Academy Award for Best Documentary. Not that Undefeated doesn't deserve its awards – apart from some overly religious-sounding musical choices that underscore big scenes, it's a highly compelling piece of filmmaking. Like such other solid sports docs as The Heart of the Game, Undefeated ultimately wants to inspire and comfort its audience, but never challenges the viewer the way Courtney would.