Winning on the field is a feat far easier than winning off it in Last Chance U, Netflix’s promising first foray into episodic sports documentaries. In its maiden six-episode season (premiering July 29 on the streaming platform), director Greg Whiteley charts the ups and downs experienced by the football team at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC). That unlikely pigskin mecca is located as far off the beaten pass as possible, in tiny Scooba, Mississippi (population 716), where highly touted recruits who’ve for some reason lost their way to Division I glory—be it run-ins with the law, or poor academic performance—seek a chance to make it (back) to a big-time national football school. For those willing to do what it demands, EMCC is a way station on the road to greater things—but as Whiteley’s show makes clear, that path is littered with obstacles, the most pressing of which are located within.
Striving for the epic scope of Steve James’ 1994 non-fiction masterpiece Hoop Dreams, with which it shares a fixation on young men striving to overcome troubled circumstances to make it to the pros, Last Chance U details the 2015 season of the EMCC Lions, who at the time had won three of the previous four community college national championships (including the most recent two), and who came into the new campaign riding a 24-game winning streak. That résumé (plus the fact that nine former players are currently in the NFL) is due to the work of coach Buddy Stephens, a rotund, bearded good ol’ boy (he has a mounted deer head in his office) with a no-nonsense approach to turning his recruits into both pro-ready athletes and world-ready men. It’s a job that, as he confesses in the first episode, requires treating them—many of whom come from rough backgrounds—with both kid gloves and tough love. As for how he straddles such a line? “I don’t know,” Buddy confesses.
Buddy is aided in his quest by athletic academic advisor Brittany Wagner, a chipper young woman responsible for making sure Lions members get good enough grades to maintain their academic eligibility—a yeoman’s task that involves regular office meetings with them (during which they often goof off and stare at their phones), as well as hounding them in the hallways about bringing the proper supplies (pencils, notebooks) to class. Without Brittany, it’s clear the Lions wouldn’t be able to field a squad, and that its studs would never get back to their preferred Division I destinations. And especially in her scenes, Last Chance U provides a stark behind-the-scenes view of college athletic administrators as not only coaches, advisers and mentors, but also as de facto parents-by-way-of-babysitters for their immature charges.
The difficulty of getting cocky, athletically gifted kids to dedicate themselves to school work is the most fascinating element of Last Chance U, which primarily focuses on four would-be stars. Ronald Ollie is a big, gregarious defensive lineman who was raised by various relatives, and whose lack of educational discipline is epitomized by his purchase of new headphones (which he constantly wears in meetings with Brittany) instead of basic necessities at the campus store. His marriage of great on-field talent and horrid classroom habits is also seen in running back DJ Law, who has the skills to be a potential pro superstar, and yet comes with so much baggage—a ne’er-do-well ex-con father; a baby son he can’t see while at EMCC—that it’s little surprise to find him struggling mightily to keep his grades at the mandatory level.
Then there are the Lions’ two quarterbacks: white local country boy Wyatt Roberts, a traditional pocket-passer who’s gotten this far thanks to hard work; and African-American John Franklin III, an athletic freak with an inconsistent (yet powerful) arm and a sturdy ego. Wyatt and John’s battle to be the starter exemplifies the clichéd, if ever-relevant, debate over whether it’s preferable for a team to have a less athletic (usually white) guy who can reliably throw, or a strong, fast (usually black) guy who can run like the wind but can’t always be counted on to thread the needle. For Buddy, the choice between Wyatt and John is an ongoing one, and at least in the first two episodes of Last Chance U (which were all that was provided to critics), the coach opts to use both during games, as a means of stoking a QB competition that—to their credit—they each readily embrace.
For teenagers embarking on their final quest to achieve football dreams, the Lions’ players rarely express a sense of entitlement, instead understanding that no one is going to give them what they want; they have to earn it, through hard work and sacrifice. While playing Madden videogames in their barren dorm rooms, they discuss the dearth of entertainment options in Scooba with a blend of resignation and good humor, recognizing that the only option left for them, football-wise, is round-the-clock dedication free of distractions—though unsurprisingly, their fellow female students provide routine temptation, regardless of the consequences that come from getting caught with one in their room.
Whiteley structures each episode around one of the Lions’ games, and the amount of time spent depicting those contests—often through beautiful, slow-motion-enhanced footage—comes at the expense of digging more deeply into his subjects’ backstories. Consequently, Last Chance U sometimes doesn’t resemble Hoop Dreams so much as Hard Knocks, the annual HBO reality TV series about an NFL team’s preseason. Given the charisma of John, Ronald and DJ, one craves a bit more about how they came to be in their particular situations—especially when it comes to John’s flameout at Florida State, which is only passingly mentioned.
Nonetheless, on the basis of its opening two installment, Last Chance U proves a gripping snapshot of individuals on the brink of both triumph and failure, and the many forces (emotional, psychological, familial) conspiring to push them in one direction or the other. It’s a story at once familiar and unique, and most captivating in its portrait of amateur athletic life as a series of constant challenges—in and out of pads—and a gauntlet of ever-present uncertainties.