Monday 30 July 2012

Turnarounds: "Undefeated"

This year's Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, Undefeated, is one straight out of the triumph-over-adversity file, seemingly designed to pick up where the season finale of TV's Friday Night Lights left off. It opens with shots of dilapidated and abandoned North Memphis houses, and does rather give the endgame away the moment the title appears on screen; so predictable is it in its trajectory from the first point to the last that, from this distance, it's hard not to think it was Harvey - and the substantial marketing clout of the über-producer's Weinstein Company - what won it the Oscar.

Directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin have filmed a season in the life of the Manassas Tigers, a Tennessee high-school football team who at first seem ironically named - because they possess next to no bite on the field whatsoever, and can most often be seen rolling over and presenting their bellies for the opposition to tickle. The Tigers' long-suffering volunteer coach is Bill Courtney, and whatever grip Undefeated holds depends more or less entirely on that particular V-word: we're being encouraged to marvel that this portly blond familyman would willingly assume the burden of turning round the fortunes of this losing enterprise, and man-manage mere boys, some of whom have accrued criminal records in their short time on this planet, many of whom slouch and shrug and struggle to keep their own pants up.

Away from the playing field, Courtney runs a local hardwood business, and we spot the parallels all too quickly. This is a born craftsman, who's set himself to taking the rough edges off the raw materials presented to him, constantly having to refine and smooth his methods. Courtney prefers a close-up, hands-on style of management: he's a hugger, going after players who've stormed out of team meetings to remind them of their place in his gameplan, and at one point driving his van up on the kerb in an attempt to keep up with the team's star tearaway Chavis Daniels.

For a while, the film delivers generic pleasures. We wonder just how bad this season is going to get before it inevitably gets better, and the answer turns out to be: pretty bad. After an early tonking on the pitch, two Tigers take a swipe at one another in a post-match briefing; one away game ends with a police cordon encouraging Courtney and his charges to get right back on their bus, rather than risk an after-game dust-up with their enraged opponents and their supporters; another game ends with the team's star player being ruled out with an injury for the remainder of the season. Then it's just a matter of waiting for the turnaround.

The kids - daffy enough to ask "Is that my brain?" upon being shown a C-scan of their own injured knee - keep Undefeated from becoming entirely predictable; the transformation of Chavis from glowering adolescent skulker to college-bound figurehead is cheering, and can be learnt from. But Lindsay and Martin can't overturn a crippling feeling of gridiron (and documentary) by numbers. Within a narrative framework familiar through everything from Remember the Titans to The Replacements, we get the obligatory prayers and pep talks, played out over ambient shots of floodlights; spitballed homilies on the importance of family, education and doing the right thing; and a final round of hugs and tears that plays as as much Oscar bait as anything in War Horse. In the unlikely event you haven't seen this story told before, you could always skip Undefeated and hold out for the feature some inspiration-starved executive is presumably prepping to make from it, doubtless with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Courtney role.
Undefeated opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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