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Undefeated

It took a full year to get released on DVD…even after winning the 2011 Best Documentary feature award. What takes them so long? Certainly it’s mostly off of people’s radar now, considering that “Searching for Sugar Man” just grabbed the 2012 Doc trophy a little over a week ago. Should you bother at this point? Sure, it’s certainly worthwhile. A bit syrupy for my tastes, but it hits its grace notes often enough. I’d argue that a couple of its fellow nominees are better though. One is “Hell and Back Again”, which I reviewed on this blog over a year ago. Plus, the only remaining nominee that I hadn’t seen—until less than 24 hours ago. That one is phenomenal, and I’ll reveal it when I get to the review proper in just a few days. “Undefeated” is about a struggling high school football team(the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, Tennessee), and a dedicated coach’s desire to get them to the playoffs for the first time in their team history. How dedicated is coach Bill Courtney? He openly admits that he spends more time with the guys from the team than his own children. Some would call that inspiring, some obsession, some neglect. I guess it’s a little bit of everything. Coach Courtney seems to be a nice enough guy. His intentions appear sincere, and he does reflect on important stuff he’s missed before the credits role. A lot of time and effort is put into pushing some of these wayward teens in the right direction. The film tells us that the primary focus for the guys is education before football—and I hope that’s true. I’ve often said that there is really no such thing as reality when people realize that a camera is actually on them. Still, “Undefeated” captures some raw, intense, dramatic exchanges between players as Courtney attempts to respect where some of these young men come from while still maintaining discipline amongst the group. The film is too caught up in its own sentimentality to expound on any of the irony inherent in another story about a white hero leading an all-black group and/or individual to victory. And that’s a debit, I think. It’s the 21st century, and that’s left unexplored. A few years ago, Sandra Bullock won a highly undeserved Oscar for “The Blind Side”—a film that just may qualify for the worst I’ve ever seen that garnered a Best Picture nomination(then I remember “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”—and Bullock stars in that one too!). That movie was based on a true story(what’s the odds on there being very little truth in it?), about a well-to-do white family that took in a poor, African-American teen, and groomed him to be a star football player. A portion of “Undefeated”‘s yarn gets very close to that scenario. Oh, I can already hear the naysayers espousing, “this documentary is not about that, it’s an uplifting tale about a man and his team”. Hey—I like the film, I just think it loses gravitas points by ignoring the elephant in the room. And I’m not judging the entire film by this criteria, but I think it should’ve been touched on. Anyway, “Undefeated” spends time with a variety of stories(crime, injury, lack of fathers, violence, learning disabilities). And when just enough of a payoff arrives—it’s mostly earned. “Undefeated” is a solid documentary feature—it simply could’ve been a braver one.   Grade:  B+       

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