Volunteer high school coach Bill Courtney says, "Football doesn't build character. Football reveals character." The triumphant sports documentary "Undefeated" proves that it does both. Courtney, the focus of this Oscar-winning film, is an inspirational figure to the disadvantaged Memphis teens on his squad, whipping them into shape with motivational speeches, life guidance and tough love.
In the process he raises Manassas High School's program from a laughingstock to a blighted neighborhood's symbol of pride. As he builds the Tigers into a winning team, this freckled, big-bellied good old boy turns trouble-prone players into dedicated young men. He also reveals his own sarcastic wit and lionhearted determination.
The film is also a story of redemption for junior linebacker Chavis Daniels, a hothead back from 15 months in a youth penitentiary for unspecified charges. His anger-management issues threaten to disrupt the team spirit that Coach Courtney works so tirelessly to instill. His struggles are contrasted with the diligent work of lineman O.C. Brown, a gentle, academically challenged athlete, and star student Montrail Brown (no relation), the right tackle.
As the Tigers evolve from the doormat of the district into a powerhouse, the three players experience crushing setbacks and transcendent victories. Yet Courtney is the star, opening up about his own challenged childhood, and at the cathartic climax shedding a few manly tears. It's likely that viewers will, too.
In scenes that echo "The Blind Side," the film shows the life-changing effect that one-on-one acts of support can have on young lives. When O.C.'s failing grades threaten to keep him off the field, a team supporter provides a bunk and board in his mansion, as well as individual tutoring. Montrail's college aspirations get a boost from a wealthy anonymous benefactor.
Coach Cantrell gives the Tigers so much of his time and emotional energy that he fears he's neglecting his own family. The trickle-down approach clearly works here, but what is to become of Manassas High's struggling non-athletes is not a question "Undefeated" chooses to tackle. The film follows its game plan (uncontroversial uplift), scores its points fairly and leaves the field with a champion's pride.