There’s a beautiful moment in the documentary “Undefeated,’’ about Tennessee’s Manassas High School football team, in which a player named Chavis Daniels demonstrates how much he’s changed. Chavis, who’s been nothing but trouble to his teammates and coaches, returns from a suspension and turns in a game-winning performance. A few days later in the locker room in front of the entire team, the head coach, Bill Courtney, names Chavis his “uncommon man,’’ a regular honor whose prize appears to be a copy of the bestseller “Uncommon’’ by the former Colts coach and NBC commentator, Tony Dungy.
Chavis speaks in a low mumble - the movie provides subtitles when the players, most of whom are black, speak in their heavy North Memphis accents. He apologizes for his behavior, explains how upset his mother was that he couldn’t play, then he tells the room that the team’s real uncommon man is a fellow Manassas Tiger named Montrail Brown (everyone calls him “Money’’), who’s been in a funk since he injured himself and now has to watch the rest of the season from the sidelines. Money is a good, college-bound student who loves the community the team provides. Without it, his extroversion slumps. He and Chavis have a dust-up at the beginning of the film, and the surprise and sincerity of Chavis’s sympathy reduced me to a puddle of tears. “Whatever you’re going through,’’ he says to Money, “It’ll get better.’’
A moment like that helps explain how the movie won the feature-length documentary Oscar last month: It’s pitched straight at your heart. (Being distributed by the Weinstein Company doesn’t hurt either.) Directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin spent a serendipitous 2009 season with the Manassas Tigers, a team that had once been ranked among the worst in the state. The movie charts its nine-game winning streak and post-season. If there’s a problem, it’s that there are too few moments like that one with Chavis in the locker room. We’re told that there’s more to the lives of these coaches and players than football, but what the film is focused on is the redemption of the Tigers’ athletic reputation.
The film shows us three players - an offensive tackle named O.C. Brown is the third - but it doesn’t really follow them. It charts the season and, in doing so, traces the arc of almost every other Hollywood movie made about the sport in the last 15 years. The players are shown to be a passive, regressive bunch. Their home lives go largely unexplored. There are doctor visits with Money and shots of O.C. taking a test. However, the movie appears to have its eye on commercial prospects that make interest in any one player less feasible than the unlikely story of the team’s journey.
“Undefeated’’ needs less of what we know we’ve seen (the football stuff) and more of the players’ and coaches’ lives, which even if we feel we’ve seen, we haven’t. Courtney, for instance, is a husband with four kids, whom he says drive him crazy when he’s home. His personality matches his girth, and his on-field manner is best described as blunt compassion. But he’s more emotional and comfortable with long, deep hugs and paternal intimacy than any coach I’ve seen.
This isn’t a movie equipped to ask questions about the player-coach love story or to stick around for answers. It’s not about the poor black players and the white, well-to-do coaching staff. Those differences aren’t the story, anyway. “Undefeated’’ is more like a work of scripted drama than journalism. That explains such touches as the coach’s prayer that plays over slow-motion footage. It’s how you wind up with a win-streak montage that’s complete with newspaper clippings of each game’s final score and the team’s updated winning record, instead of a movie about how, in order to get his grades up and with his grandmother’s blessing, Brown moved in three years ago with the family of the Tigers’ volunteer assistant coach Mike Ray.
Were “Undefeated’’ just based on a true story rather than actually true, the movie wouldn’t get the time of day from the Academy. Of course, the story of how the Tigers beat the odds promises to continue: The Weinsteins and Sean “Diddy’’ Combs are working on a fictional remake. People have mentioned the documentary in the same breath as Steve James’s basketball epic, “Hoop Dreams.’’ It’s not that good. But the long-form nonfiction filmmaking that James practices is even harder now to get into movie theaters than it was in 1994. (James’s most recent film, “The Interrupters,’’ went nowhere at the movies, and it’s as powerful as “Hoop Dreams.’’) It’s possible that Lindsay and Martin have the footage to make a comparable film, but it might not be in their interest. There’s no money in it, and acclaim isn’t enough. Now the goal is entry into Hollywood’s afterlife.