Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature

Undefeated reviewed by Greg Wright

This is football, and this is life. Both are games of inches.

And if you don’t believe the fate of men and nations alike turn on the simplest of choices and miscues, just take a gander at this Oscar-winning documentary that’s a cross between The Blind Side and Friday Night Lights.

This is Tennessee, though, not Texas—and the setting is a less-than-dirt-poor public school, not a private Christian school. But as in The Blind Side, the heroes of this story are fatherless black kids… and white coaches and mentors.

Another big difference here, though. Like Blind Side’s Sean Tuohy, coach Bill Courtney is a self-made man from the wrong side of the Deep-Southern tracks. He owns a specialty hardwoods factory, and knows what it means to suck it up when misfortune strikes and rise above it. But the coaching… well, he volunteers at Memphis’ Manassas High, and over the course of six years takes the Tigers from scoring maybe 36 points in an entire winless schedule to a shot at the division title, the playoffs… and maybe, even, an undefeated season.

undefeated-insetHow? As Courtney says, not because he builds character into these kids through football, but that football reveals character in them. And as Courtney also tells his players, because players win games—not coaches. What Courtney and his volunteer staff do very effectively, though, is invest in these boys as people, as young men with potential—and build character in them before and between every snap of the ball through sound teaching, mentoring, and a lot of prayer, faith, and hope.

In addition to Courtney, the camera follows three players in particular: O.C. Brown, a massive left tackle who instantly evokes Michael Oher… and, uncannily, might have a shot at a college scholarship if tutors can help him raise his grades and test scores (!); Money, the team’s scrappy right tackle who will beyond a doubt play his last organized football during this, his senior season; and Chavis, who fits in the most-likely-to-be-dead-by-twenty category. The ups and downs of these three young men are alternately infuriating, heartbreaking, and breathtaking, and Courtney’s right in the thick of it all along the way.

And then there’s the football.

While experienced documentarians Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin won’t exactly be inspiring generations of filmmakers with their compositions or camera work, they have here stumbled on narrative gold—and manage would could have been, in other hands, a by-the-numbers gridiron travelogue in a way that truly dramatizes what’s at stake and wisely whittles away extraneous footage in favor of roughly 120 minutes of real drama.

This film goes straight into my keep-it-forever catalog of great sports documentaries like When We Were Kings, Touching the Void, The King of Kong, Hoop Dreams, More Than A Game, Deep Water, and Surfwise.

Amazing and inspiring stuff. Oscars? Whatever.

Undefeated is available to stream at Amazon Instant Video.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!


2 Responses to “Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature”
  1. Ben says:

    When was this review / article written? This movie won the Oscar for the “Best Documentary Feature” in 2012. One of the producers, Ed Cunningham, was the center for the UW 1991 National Championship Football Team.
    The reviewer and I agree that this was a quality film. We also agree that it has a message that goes way beyond football. Go see it.

    • Greg Wright says:

      Hey, Ben. I originally reviewed this film on a different site when it was released in theaters. When I was thinking about what football films to cover on the Home Video front, it immediately came to mind! So I resurrected the review and updated it.

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