Undefeated is essentially a real-life documentary version of the latter seasons of the TV show, Friday Night Lights. The Oscar-nominated film—directed by Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin—follows the 2009 football season of Manassas High School in North Memphis, a school more familiar with metal detectors and juvenile detention than with winning football games.
Like the fictionalized East Dillon Lions in Lights, the Manassas Tigers are comprised of mostly African-American players with the deck stacked against them. They come from broken families and poverty, their grades are poor, some have been to jail, and the idea of college is a dream most have long abandoned. But they have a coach, Bill Courtney, who believes in them, a coach who is like Lights' Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) both in his fatherly compassion and in his tough-love commitment to excellence. The film is a season-long slice-of-life reflection on what winning looks like in this unlikely partnership between a coach, his players, and a community. It's more than just a game, of course; and "undefeated," as we come to see, is about more than just avoiding a loss on the scoreboard.
Like any good documentary about a group or ensemble, Undefeated focuses on a handful of characters rather than everyone on the team. One of these is "O.C.," the massive senior left tackle who has perhaps the most talent and long-term athletic potential of anyone on the team. O.C.'s arc is strikingly similar to that of Michael Oher in The Blind Side. With his poor grades and dreadful test scores threatening to derail his college prospects, O.C. is taken in by a wealthy white family in posh East Memphis, where he spends a few days each week with a private tutor, in the hopes that he'll raise his scores enough to be recruited by major colleges. Along with O.C., the film focuses on "Money," a senior honors student and undersized offensive lineman hoping to earn an academic scholarship, and Chavis, a talented junior linebacker with anger issues.
This trio provides a compelling representative sampling of what, through vehicles like Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side, we've come to imagine are the typical trials of high school football players in lower-income communities. For them, football is not just a prestige position in the high school status hierarchy; it's an anchoring community and a motivating purpose—a high intensity training ground where discipline, character, and teamwork matter. It's perhaps the only place in these kids' lives where some sort of "family" exists in a unified, healthy way. It might be the only place in their lives where an older male speaks into their story with character, wisdom, leadership, and love.
In this case, that older male is head coach Bill Courtney, and he's the heart of the film. Since Manassas has no money to fund football, Courtney is a volunteer head coach. A successful entrepreneur, family man, and former college football player, Courtney began coaching at Manassas in 2004 out of a love for the game and a desire to give back to his community by molding young men and giving them a shot at success. It isn't an easy task. Manassas is a losing team that hasn't won a playoff game in its 110-year history; they're underfunded, ridiculed, written-off by most. Courtney—a portly fellow with a mullet and a thick southern drawl—spends as much time breaking up fights, keeping his players in school and away from jail as he does coaching them on the field. Again, if this sounds like Coach Taylor and his challenges at East Dillon in Lights, it's because it more or less is, minus the Hollywood faces and soap opera storylines.