Let me preface this by saying that I am not a football fan. Not by a long shot. In fact, I hate sports.
This has always been true. A naturally un-coordinated, un-graceful, un-athletic person, I was picked last for every team I was ever unlucky enough to be on. The only thing I’ve ever prayed for in my life is that I would magically become good at sports, so that the other kids would stop laughing at me. Or feeling sorry for me, which was worse.
As I grew up, people stopped asking me to be on teams, and I began to find a certain enjoyment in, if not the games themselves, then at least their trappings. I enjoyed attending baseball games because who doesn’t like drinking beer and eating hot dogs outdoors. I enjoyed the Super Bowl parties, because yes, I liked the ads. Also, who doesn’t like drinking beer and eating buffalo wings in someone’s cozy living room. (You’re sensing a pattern, aren’t you?)
Delicious sporting-event-accoutrements aside, I really never cared about the sports themselves. I just could not get myself to give a damn about how many times a group of guys managed to put some puck/ball/whatever into some goal/end zone/whatever.
All of that changed one holiday weekend with when I found myself alone in my apartment, without housemates or social obligations. I discovered Friday Night Lights. For those of you Friday Night Lights fans out there, I need not explain. Running into a fellow Friday Night Lights lover is like running into a fellow vegan. It is a rare moment of wide eyed joy at finding a kindred spirit in a world that does not understand you.
But for those of you who have not joined the cult of FNL, let me give you some background. Friday Night Lights is a show about small-town Texas high school football. Like buffalo wings and drinking beer outdoors, there are lots of reasons to love FNL that have nothing to do with football. Hot actors, steamy drama, fun vérité-esque camerawork, and solid writing are things that would make me like any show.
But FNL is a show about football. Something I have never tried or wanted to understand. And yet, after cramming in a few seasons over that long lonely holiday weekend, I found my eyes straying to the TVs in bars whenever football was on. It was like someone had flipped my sports enjoyment switch. Suddenly and in spite of myself, I got it.
Needless to say, when I was given a chance to see Undefeated, touted as “The Real Friday Night Lights,” I was excited. The other (fake?) Friday Night Lights recently ended its five season run and I’ve been hungering for a fix. The film, I am happy to say, did not disappoint.
Undefeated, directed by Dan Lindsay & T.J. Martin, follows an inner city football team in Memphis trying to win the first playoff game in their school’s 110 year history. It’s a classic underdog story. When we first meet the players, they’re disorganized and beaten down. They’re convinced they’re going to lose no matter what, and everyone else agrees with them. One player is let back on the team straight after getting out of juvie.
Then, slowly, under the firm eye and steady guidance of Head Coach Bill Courtney, the boys begin to grow into men, and the ramshackle collection of players begins to emerge as a team. A team of winners.
There are, of course, plenty of obstacles. One player tears his ACL only a few weeks into the season, another struggles to keep his grades high enough to play. The young man recently released from juvenile hall struggles to control the temper that landed him there in the first place. And still, like its fictional counterpart, the film leaves you with a warmth that spreads outward from your gut, the way only a good story can do.
If this all sounds like a cliché, it is. But it’s a cliché done well. And what is a new story but an old story retold with skill? Coach Courtney may not be as dreamy as FNL’s Coach Taylor, but he is every bit the down-home inspiration, hold the cheese. If you agree that this sarcastic pessimist of a world could use a little earnest sincerity, then you’ll like this movie.
Undefeated, like FNL, molds the game of football into a surprisingly graceful metaphor for growing up, our collective need to believe in something, and life itself. Clichés once again, but important ones.
If you’re a football fan, there’s no doubt that you’ll love Undefeated. Same goes if you’re a member of the Coach Taylor fan club. But if you’re neither, I’m willing to bet that this film will be able to do for you what Friday Night Lights did for me.
It will make you understand why everyone gets so excited about throwing around an oddly shaped leather ball. You too may find your eyes drifting to the television the next time there’s a football game on at your local bar. Most importantly, it will make you feel good. And who couldn’t use a good ole fashioned dollop of that these days?
Undefeated comes to the DOC NYC festival next week:
6:30 PM, Mon. Nov. 7, 2011 – IFC Center – Buy Tickets
3:45 PM, Tue. Nov. 8, 2011 – IFC Center – Buy Tickets