Last Chance U Review: Where Friday Night Lights Fell to Saccharine Sanctity of the Sport, Last Chance U Succeeds As a Completed Story
You’re not going to make a TV show, movie, or book about the intensely insular community-football culture without it being compared to Friday Night Lights. Bissinger’s book, and Peter Berg’s movie and TV show did a fantastic job of showing a fully functioning township that revolved around the high school level of the sport in a small Texas town, where the stakes were low and the drug of sport is potent. It hasn’t had many competitors and it’ll be a formula adopted probably for a long time.
But Friday Night Lights always had a problem with its ending. In the book, Bissinger gave a cute showy ending focusing on a different person in the town with the final play of the game on the line. In the movie, Billy Bob Thornton wistfully takes names off the board in the practice room and replaces them with new ones. The TV show didn’t have an ending.
Sometimes, reality gives us a better ending.
Last Chance U doesn’t seem like much at first glance. It’s a six-episode documentary about a small Junior College football team in Mississippi. The coach eats steak and doritos at the dinner table with his wife and three daughters. The extremely dedicated academic counselor runs a yoga class. The players come to Eastern Mississippi because they didn’t make the grade for Division I college football (ya know, the stuff you watch on Saturdays) and need a second chance. Eastern Mississippi, we’ve learned, has won the JuCo national championship three of the last four years.
The doc crew takes us into the lives of these people and makes themselves comfortable. We see players laugh, quit, get mad. We see coaches yell and say things they probably shouldn’t have said while mic’d. A lot of things they shouldn’t have said. … But everyone has something on the line here and the doc crew makes sure we know it. The kids all want to play, the coaches want to win, the academic counselor and teachers want to see the kids succeed.
And the success of the show isn’t what you’d think it is. It’s not some incredible great play that saves the season or even a win, for that matter. It’s the success of these kids who struggle and work so hard and are pushed so hard , that they find what they came for: a chance. By the end, you’ve forgotten there was a football team to begin with.
The hopes of the actual football team — oh, right, the football team — all come to a climactic end in a very anti-climactic way — and most documentaries would end there. You’d see the doc crew scurry trying to find some angle.
But what makes this doc crew special is that what would have normally destroyed a documentary, they dug deeper. They went into those fears of the players and their worst nightmares — and I felt that. Their fears became my fears. I began siding with them.
At the heart of the documentary isn’t the coaches but the academic counselor, Brittany Wagner. You see plenty of the coaches work the kids on the field, but you see just as much of her working with the kids to get their grades up. It’s a struggle, and you see that struggle, but more importantly you see what’s behind the struggle: fear of failure; fear of losing everything they’ve known; fear of going back home to live on a street corner and meet a grisly end.
Oddly, that was the real draw for me. While I tuned in at first to watch some beautiful shots of football play in slow motion, I became hooked on the inherent drama of survival for these kids. The doc crew went really deep into that — Ronald Ollie’s concussion and childhood that led to his abandonment issues; DJ Law’s rough neighborhood growing up; John Franklin III struggles for relevancy with his overwhelming talent.
I think it takes an expert documentary maker to find the story and stick with it and that was the case here. There’s also some incredibly beautiful shots, some fish-out-of-water shots, some slo-mo shots of people being people. It all works toward this smorgasbord of emotional rollercoaster and ultimately, when the camera pans off the football field, the triumph of these kids.
Last Chance U was beautiful, sad, triumphant, and satisfying. My favorite show of 2016 so far.