There are many sports documentaries that cover a team over the course of a season, and they always seem like a real gamble because past results don’t guarantee future performance. I wonder how many filmmakers have had their hopes dashed when they start covering what should be an unstoppable force only to have their first “off” season in years. It’s even riskier to film the underdog, because they’re expected to lose. A film like Quantum Hoops (about the historically awful Caltech basketball team) would probably still be very good even if the team performed down to everyone’s expectations, but Undefeated would not have been the film it was if the team hadn’t made a dramatic reversal when the cameras were rolling.

Manassas High School is located in a particularly run-down area of North Memphis. The poverty rate is as high as the crime rate, and few kids are lucky enough to grow up with both parents around to care for them. Most people who grow up there don’t have any hope of college or of getting a decent job. The school is strapped for cash, and the only way they can afford to have a football team is that richer schools with much better teams actually pay the Manassas Tigers to play them for what’s sure to be an easy win. That was the norm when Bill Courtney came to coach six years ago, and he certainly didn’t turn things around right away. But in whatever season the film covered (I’m guessing it was 2009 or 2010, but I don’t think they mentioned it), things were looking up for them. They had a couple of great seniors, including O.C. Brown, who was able to run through just about any opposition thanks to his combination of size and speed, and Montrail “Money” Brown (who I’m pretty sure is not related to O.C.), whose intelligence allows him to overcome his size disadvantage. They were also getting back Charvis Daniels, a promising player who had missed the previous season because he was in jail. The Tigers had never won a playoff game in the school’s history, but perhaps they had the right team to finally make it over that hurdle.

The team’s first game of the season makes it obvious that the title doesn’t refer to a lossless record, but rather it’s the more sappy “our spirits won’t be defeated” sense of the word, but even that doesn’t really hold for everyone. They have a number of challenges to overcome, and more than one occasion in which someone is ready to throw in the towel. Coach Courtney is clearly not the most eloquent of speakers, and some of his pearls of wisdom don’t actually make any sense if you think about them too carefully. But it’s clear that he and the other coaches really care for the players and go the extra mile to ensure that they’re in a position to succeed in life in addition to on the field.

Undefeated recently won the Academy Award for best documentary, and while it may well be the best of the films that were nominated (although I can’t say that authoritatively, since the only other nominee I’ve seen was the very disappointing Pina), but it’s hard to call it the best documentary of the year with films like Senna and Tabloid not even nominated for some reason. Undefeated is not always easy to watch, and it skirts around some touchy subjects, but it comes together so well in the end that it’s easy to forgive the sometimes rocky path it took to get there.