Undefeated tells the story of an underdog high school football team, the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, and how the squad members attempt to rise to victory — in football and in life, too — under the guiding hand of a devoted, cherubic-faced good-ol’-boy coach. Reflexively, I almost wrote, ”good-ol’-boy coach played by Dennis Quaid.” But then I reminded myself that Undefeated is one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary. It’s not a scripted Hollywood sports fable about a team of young African-Americans who are coaxed to reach for greatness by a charismatic white savior. Yet the elements of such a movie are so neatly in place, and Undefeated embraces them with such sentimental-inspirational force, that for a while I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something a little facile and opportunistic about the movie. It’s as if the codirectors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, had set out to make a high-concept Hoop Dreams and found what they were looking for because they’d already shaped the movie in their heads.
Yet let it be said: For a documentary that’s almost engineered to lift your heart, Undefeated is very well done. That coach, a local lumber-company owner named Bill Courtney, really is a great character. He’s a walking pep talk with twinkly eyes, but his believe-in-yourself bluster fights an angry perfectionism, and that makes him a taskmaster-saint hero in the Vince Lombardi mold. The players — like the talented but explosively short-fused linebacker Chavis Daniels and the pensive left tackle O.C. Brown, who is angling for a scholarship that could change his life — let their guards down off the field, and it’s moving to see what complex and vulnerable young men they are. One thing, of course, that the filmmakers couldn’t begin to plan was how the 2009 season would play out. Suffice it to say that the agony of defeat in this movie is every bit as transporting as the thrill of victory. B+