Sports documentaries often have an edge over other non-fiction stories simply because they've already got a narrative built in: Seasons start and end, players rise and fall, and successes and failures on the field are easily projected onto the broader lives of the men and women involved as symbolic of their own struggles. But that doesn't mean all sports docs are automatically good. In fact, it's just the opposite. It takes a genuine storyteller to make the kind of skillful film that can rise above the rest. Thankfully, co-directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin are that good, and their film, Undefeated, is an uplifting, bittersweet, thoroughly moving look at the lives of some young men learning to be stronger than their years. It screened recently at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
The boys at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee, are not doing well. They live in an area of town that's been rotting for years; they're familiar with seeing brothers, fathers, and cousins carted off to jail; and they're struggling to figure out what to do with their lives once they finish their senior year. The school's athletic program is under-funded, too, which is why the head football coach, Bill Courtney, volunteers his time to shepherd the program. Lindsay and Martin aren't out to protest the cash-flow situation, though, but to chronicle the lives of some of the boys on the team and explore what it means to be an actual underdog. The MHS Tigers usually finish the season with a losing record, and have had several years where they didn't win any games at all. The team has also never won a playoff game since the school was founded in the 1890s.
In other words, the stage is perfectly primed for stories of struggle, hardship, and emotional triumph, all of which Lindsay and Martin capture so perfectly that it's hard to believe they haven't scripted the narrative. There's O.C., the giant but sweet player who was kicked up the ladder via social promotion and is desperately trying to make grades to go to college; Money, a sweet-natured boy still reeling from the death of his father years earlier; Chavis, a hot-headed kid who's already done 15 months in juvie; etc., etc. The film follows the Tigers as they try to go out on top and prove their worth, and as those boys work through challenges they didn't think they'd have to face for years.
Lindsay and Martin are also smart enough to know that less is more. In other words, they don't use certain moments as springboards into trenchant political discussions or fervent preaching; they simply let the characters tell the story. Chronicling the lives of lower-income kids in north Memphis means raising a whole host of uncomfortable questions about race, class, and the disparity between those with so much and those with so little, but the directors know that they can sum up so much of that with a simple sequence cutting between the tiny lots of the players' neighborhoods and the sprawling estates where the coaches live.
Although the film covers a school year, most of it focuses on the football season, and the directors shoot and edit the games with a genuine understanding of suspense and excitement. They also come up with gorgeous ways to shoot certain games that eschew typical 4th-and-inches drama and better communicate the broader emotions at work. One game in particular is haunting because it's summed up with a few key sequences edited together, with the only soundtrack the prayer Bill offered in the locker room before kickoff. It's outstanding filmmaking, packed with watchable characters and a compelling story. There's not much more you could ask for.