I’m not talking about message movies, although plenty of those attempt to inspire us–it’s just that their attempts are so transparent that the audience feels like it’s being treated like idiots. (And for some reason we educators, and maybe I should throw parents in here as well, don’t think that young people notice that cringe-worthy transparency as clearly as we do: that if we feed them a diet of wholesome movies unabashedly designed to cater to those parents and educators who want nothing besides wholesomeness in their movies, then somehow all those good messages will get absorbed like vitamins. Instead, the kids just barely manage to stifle their giggles in our presence.)
Okay, so pardon that near-rant, but the point is this: it’s difficult even for the most artful films to inspire us in ways that we’ve never experienced before… hence their corniness, which we excuse even if we feel guilty for doing so. After all, we’ve all the movie about the underdog who never backs down, about the kids “from the wrong side of the tracks” who accomplish amazing things, about the tell-it-like-is math teacher/coach/principal/martial arts mentor who has the courage to brandish tough love while everyone else gives up on the kids/class/dojo/ragtag sports team.
So the first time I encountered Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s documentary Undefeated, about a western Tennessee high school football program in what is typically called an “underserved” community, I thought I might like it because I like sports movies, and I like docs about youth. But at the same time I expected it to be the corniest thing ever, and that I would like anyway for the reasons just stated. In short, it would be a guilty pleasure, predictable but somehow satisfying nonetheless. And since the film arrived in the form of an awards screener from The Weinstein Company, I thought, Good luck with that. There’s no way a well-meaning but unoriginal doc like this can compete with the big boys…
But then I watched Undefeated and, boy, I could not have been more wrong. The title does not refer to being undefeated on the football field, as I’d assumed, but rather to assuming an attitude toward life that does not admit to being defeated, not in any permanent sense, ever. In the outward guise of a typical “competition doc” or in the vein of an “uplifting” Disney flick such as Remember the Titans, there’s a far deeper, far more compelling film, one for which I had not been prepared.* Then, when the film went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, I patted myself on the back for recognizing how different and valuable the film is, the way fans are apt to do any time they feel they discovered a particular actor or comics artist or YA author before the rest of the world caught on.
Well, almost exactly a year later comes Undefeated on Blu-ray, and the opportunity for those who work in schools or with teens in any context–hint, hint, at heart this is not really a sports movie at all–to experience. And for those who already know Undefeated, let me assure you that this home video package is quite nice: the deleted scenes (which include an incredible speech by Coach Courtney) are better than most scenes that remain in other docs, and the making-of featurette is brief but rather fascinating, detailing how the filmmakers kind of stumbled across this story; there’s also a directors’ commentary that I haven’t sampled yet but I’m looking forward to, perhaps with my kids.
So “Oscar week” here at CTP continues with a giveaway of this very special film–but first, please allow me to draw attention to my blatant and somewhat crude attempt to exploit Oscar fever with the start of this sentence. It would be one thing if I fervently cared about the Oscars, but… oh, never mind, that’s a topic for another day.
So if you’d like a Blu-ray of Undefeated, Anchor Bay and TWC has graciously provided three copies to SLJ readers. Here are the rules to get one:
1. Double-check that you live in the U.S. or Canada.
2. Leave a thoughtful comment here (through 11:59 pm ET Feb 22) or on any CTP post about documentaries. You can find a list of them here: http://blogs.slj.com/connect-the-pop/tag/documentary/
3. If you don’t see your comment, just contact me via email or Twitter (see below).
4. I’ll email the three winners, who’ll then be asked to provide (via me) their mailing addresses to the distributor. If I don’t hear back from you within 48 hours of notification, I’ll simply draw another name.
*Here’s a great online read on this topic: “The Role of Competition in American Movies” by Jay Livingston.