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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

'Undefeated' is a realistic glimpse into high school football

The documentary about a Tennessee team will resonate in L.A. and elsewhere. The coach is the star as he sacrifices and endures through successes and failures.

February 09, 2012|Eric Sondheimer
  • Coach Bill Courtney and O.C. Brown in Dan Lindsay's and TJ Martin's film Undefeated.
Coach Bill Courtney and O.C. Brown in Dan Lindsay's and TJ Martin's… (Weinstein Company )

If you want to know how playing high school football can teach lessons in life, the documentary "Undefeated" is a must see. It's nominated for an Academy Award.

Set for release Feb. 17 in Los Angeles, the 113-minute film follows the Memphis (Tenn.) Manassas High football team during the 2009 season.

The school has never won a playoff game since its founding in 1899. Students pass through metal detectors to enter campus.

The head coach, Bill Courtney, is a businessman who took over the program in 2004. To see him trying to multi-task responsibilities on and off the field will resonate with any public-school coach in Los Angeles or elsewhere.

It's such a realistic presentation of the ups and downs of a team and its diverse characters that players and coaches will mumble to themselves, "That happened to me," or "I know that guy."

The film focuses on three athletes from Manassas facing a variety of obstacles — the star player who needs to improve his SAT score to get a college scholarship; the undersized player with good grades who desperately needs an academic scholarship to attend college, and the physically imposing player who has a terrible temper and can't stay out of trouble.

But to me, the coach is the star. The sacrifices he makes and how he endures the emotional ups and downs while maintaining his mostly positive attitude is fascinating.

"You're killing me. You're sucking it out of me," he says in one of his most frustrating encounters with a player.

He truly is trying to teach his players about character, but are they listening? Do they understand the message? Do they really care?

One of the most interesting plots involves what to do about the talented player who keeps getting into trouble. He tests everyone's patience, and teammates are wondering when the coach will finally say enough and let him go.

It's one of the biggest dilemmas for a coach: How many chances should a player get before you give up on him?

To see the player change will challenge beliefs about what is an appropriate strategy in trying to help a teenager who keeps rebelling.

"One of the themes we were always going for was the power of resilience and the idea of never really giving up," said the film's co-director, Dan Lindsay. "The wins and losses were never really important to us. We were always more interested in telling a human-interest story."

In the final scenes, there will be tears on the screen and in the audience, but I was torn what to root for.

If the team wins its playoff game, does it really mean the players have learned something about character and commitment? If the team loses, won't the players' response reveal whether they really have listened and learned from their coach?

The answer to those two questions goes deep into the psyche and experiences of playing and coaching high school football.

"Undefeated" captures the contradictions, the struggles, the successes and the failures with a realistic, compelling presentation.

Coach Courtney's favorite line comes through often: "The character of a man is not defined by how he handles his victories but what he does with his failures."

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latsondheimer

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