The Lions, the East Mississippi Community College football team, based in the tiny town of Scooba specialise in recruiting players rejected or released by better and bigger teams (usually for off the field transgressions or classroom performance). A tiny town in nowhere is hardly where these NFL wannabe’s want to be, but getting the required grades at EMCC and playing well for the Lions is their last shot at making it to a good University on a football scholarship and then the NFL.
For the Lions, this recruitment policy has made them three time National Junior College Champions, as well as the focus of this Netflix documentary.
The first thing which strikes you about Last Chance U is the unprecedented levels of access the filming team have. This isn’t a sanitised NFL documentary; here we see the coaching staff cuss and swear (a lot) and in one case physically shove players in frustration. The camera goes everywhere, and sees all. “We make that a prerequisite, that we get that kind of access,” says Greg Whiteley, the Emmy-nominated director behind Last Chance U.
Amazon Prime launched their NFL documentary series All or Nothing earlier this summer, and that delivered a behind the scenes experience on training regimes, play-calling and everything that goes on at an NFL team getting ready for gameday. Last Chance U offers a different prospect. It’s closer to a Friday Night Lights (or even The Blind Side) in that its interest lies in the players themselves; their prospects, their academic performance and their backgrounds and that’s why the first couple of episodes are a little bit of a slow burner. The star of these early episodes is Brittany Wagner, an academic advisor whose job it is to keep a track on grade averages and to gently (or not so gently) cajole the players into actually attending classes. Some of the players call her ‘mum’, and her relationship with the star players on the Lions roster, in particular Defensive Tackle Ronald Ollie, is reminiscent of Sandra Bullock’s role in The Blind Side.
There are plenty of off-the-field storylines to sink into; including a battle for the starting Quarterback spot, the fate of a star running back and the aforementioned Ollie; a player of talent and person with a troubled past and a heart of gold who seems (frustratingly) incapable of applying himself to any task small or large that isn’t football related which jeopardises his future as a Lions player.
The Lions do face on the field dramas as well as off-the field ones and when the football footage does come it’s still superbly edited together; getting just about every last drop of drama out of the sport (even in games that are one-sided blow-outs) and side-line smack talk. Early episodes focus on the team trying to extend a long winning streak that might become a national record, and they are lead by Head Coach Buddy Stephens. If some football documentaries leave you with the feeling the subjects are allowing themselves to be interviewed, their personalities carefully screened and allowed out in miniature bursts, the all-access film-making of Last Chance U allows him to be a presented as a fully-formed 3D individual, warts and all. Stephens is football addicted, quick to temper (to a fault), foul-mouthed, hypercritical and passionate, and he clearly cares about his team and players.
As well as following the team on the highs of the team on the field and the annoying lows of watching some talented players shooting their careers in the foot by skipping on classes Last Chance U takes some diversions to follow the impact the team’s success has had on the tiny town (Population under 800). Here it becomes a little hit and miss: interesting is a profile of a Lions superfan; but an extended look at the candidates for homecoming queen is dull and feels shoe-horned in. The majority of the girls aren’t seen or heard from again (at least the superfan is seen across multiple episodes) and if the series was to focus on the town at large (for the full Friday Night Lights experience) it was worth committing to it fully.
The peak of the on the field drama comes with episode five, and if you’ve googled the show, or the team, you probably know why: a match between the Lions and their fiercest rivals ends in a mammoth bench clearing brawl, leaving tensions explosively high and play-off hopes in the balance. Perfectly edited, it’s gripping, like the best fight scenes in a thriller and the insane ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ nature of the full-on-brawl makes it a perfect way to end an episode.
If episode five was going to be hard to top for the sheer craziness of its finale; episode six somehow manages it. It starts with fireworks as in the immediate aftermath of the brawl Stephens bawls out his team for their behaviour – and possibly reveals a little too much of his true nature, losing the respect of several players with his words – and then there is the fallout from both a legal and a team morale point of view. It then relaxes into a contemplative, bittersweet finale as the academic year comes to an end: which players are moving on, whose dreams of playing Division 1 football have come true and who isn’t progressing any further. It’s here where you truly realise the value of those first few episodes in actually making you give a damn about the fates of these young men in the first place; and that while an All or Nothing gives you access to millionaire superstars, Last Chance U reminds you that for every player who makes it, a lot have had a hell of a struggle to get there and hundreds more won’t ever get the chance.
Verdict: Less a documentary on the sport, more one on those who struggle to make a career out of it; this is the closest thing to Friday Night Lights: The Documentary…since the Friday Night Lights book. Without the big star names as a hook you might start off wondering why you care, by the end you’ll wonder why you never didn’t. Unmissable for any sports fan, anywhere, or for anyone looking for an insight into American society and culture.