Feature

How Last Chance U escaped the sports cliché

You know the pass, the fumble, the dashed hopes, the underdog victory. But you've never seen a football story quite like Netflix's new documentary.

It takes a village to raise a football player. This, at least, is the conclusion that Last Chance U, a Netflix original documentary series, offers to even the most casual viewer. Director Greg Whiteley trains his camera on the Eastern Mississippi Community College Lions, a team composed largely of young men who have been kicked out of other schools or run into trouble elsewhere, and now need a shot at redemption. Whether "redemption" is the same thing as "winning" is a question Last Chance U wisely leaves to the viewer.

Last Chance U's setting — the tiny town of Scooba, Mississippi, and the unlikely powerhouse it contains — is remarkable, but its themes occupy a space beyond familiarity. As viewers, we know the sports story by heart: the pass, the fumble, the dashed hopes, the underdog victory. Not for nothing can football's most iconic moments — the Miracle in Miami, the Immaculate Reception — be compressed to a few seconds of play, and to the kind of triumph anyone can understand, no matter how unfamiliar they may be with the players or the team or even the sport itself.

Scale those moments to encompass the field, the fans, and the frame imposed upon a game by the realities of time and place, and these victories become more complicated. Last Chance U takes a structure as compelling as it is simple: Start with the field, and move slowly outward. Follow the quarterback into his dorm room. See what he does on his days off. Listen to his phone calls with his family. Follow those calls to a home, a hope, a collection of photographs of a smiling boy — or follow him to class the next day, watch him talk to his teacher, prepare for a test, go to the library and flirt with a girl. Follow the girl he flirts with out of the library. Follow his teacher home. Talk to the maintenance man who takes care of the dorm room and loves the team so much that his job becomes a joy. Start with the field — the gleaming green space at the center of a town's defeats and fantasies — and move, slowly, into the lives that make it what it is.

Last Chance U is lovingly photographed and smartly crafted, but the very best tool in Whiteley's arsenal may be the way he captivates viewers by yoking sociology to play. Viewers who might never turn on a football game will find themselves compelled by the story of a group of young men struggling to find their way into adulthood — and their interest in this story will gradually allow them to understand the richness of what these men do on the field, which Whiteley also captures with precision and verve. The same is true for any football fan who loves the game enough to follow its team's actions after victory or defeat, but who have previously had little opportunity to see how a football player acts away from his fans and opponents and coaches, and when he has to find out who he is when the only role he has to play is that of himself.

"They're not conditioned to do school," the team's academic advisor, Brittany Wagner, says of her students. "They're not conditioned to go to class."

Wagner's mission to prepare her students for life beyond the field is a quietly compelling presence within the series, but the series doesn't present the players as accessories in a fantasy about molding black students into a white teacher's idea of respectability. In a scene where Wagner scolds one player, John Franklin III, for hooking up with a classmate, the camera lingers as Franklin goes toe to toe with her. "You've been around college athletes for how long now?" he asks. "Seventeen years?"

"I've been trying to make y'all make better decisions for 17 years," Wagner says.

"It's the evolution of life," Franklin answers. "It's a stage. It is. So let me go through my stage. Let me live my stage." Like any documentary worth watching, Last Chance U defers to the people it depicts to explain the realities of their lives.

"This is a chance to step forward and make people believe in them again," the Lions' coach, Buddy Stephens, says of his team. Whether what it will take to "make people believe in them" — winning — is the same as what it will take to make these players believe in themselves is a question Last Chance U allows the viewer to approach on their own terms. Whether viewers come to the series because they are drawn to the sport it portrays or the people it follows, they will emerge with more thought-provoking questions than easy answers.

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