When you’re at the top, there’s nowhere to go but down. That’s the bitter inevitability that East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) hopes to forestall for as long as it can. At the beginning of the six-part documentary Last Chance U (Netflix), which premiered last Friday (July 29), the EMCC Lions start the academic year undefeated for nearly three years, with a streak of 24 consecutive victories. (The junior-college record is 27 wins.) Led by their screaming barrel of a head coach, Buddy Stephens, the Lions fully intend to win their fourth national championship since 2011. Then the inevitable happens.
The Lions consistently rank among the country’s most fearsome J.C. teams. But EMCC is considered a school “you go to leave,” and its student athletes are a hodgepodge of kids aiming for another chance at a college scholarship, students who dropped out or were kicked out of their former universities, and a few local recruits who probably came to live near Scooba, Mississippi (population 716), in the hopes of being scouted by EMCC staff. Most are black, many come from poverty and with trauma, and some seem doomed by their refusal to make a plan B for themselves if they don’t make it into the NFL by beating the overwhelming odds against them.
The contrast between the Lions’ slippery perch on the throne and the individual players’ difficult circumstances is gradually revealed to be Last Chance U’s most compelling theme. Director Greg Whiteley’s doc has been described as a real-life version of Friday Night Lights, focusing on the relationships between Coach Stephens and academic advisor Brittany Wagner on the one hand, and the students they attempt to mold into upstanding men and committed-enough students on the other. (Wagner emerges as the series’s maternal heroine, calling her charges to turn in a paper by the end of the school day, needling them about their absences from class, and lightly scolding one for his caddish behavior with a female acquaintance.) Like Fright Night Lights, nearly every episode ends with a game, and there’s just enough dabs of local color to provide a sense of place: the team ritual of reciting the Lord’s Prayer, some of the players’ thick-tongued accents, and, eventually, an insidious, knee-jerk racism that has Coach Stephens accusing his predominantly African-American athletes of “thug bullshit” in the opening installment. (Like Kyle Chandler’s Coach Taylor, he seems to be a decent man. Unlike Coach Taylor, he’s a human being, prone to anger and the recipient of white privilege he probably hasn’t had reason to interrogate fully.) Dismayingly, that racism — combined, possibly, with the Lions’ top reputation — will have a bigger impact on the athletes than any of them could have imagined.
Don’t expect, though, that Last Chance U can match Friday Night Lights’s sociological sophistication or its emotional vulnerability. As with so much of Netflix’s original content — though this one less so — there’s not enough story to warrant the extended running time. It’s not until the fourth episode, when Coach Stephens is pulled out of a nascent fistfight with a referee in the middle of a game, that the finale’s emotional payoff is set up. The documentary also doesn’t manage to make students like D.J. Law, a young father guilty about living so far from his family, and Ronald Ollie, an orphan with a propensity to quit the team when the going gets tough, feel like compelling characters. Law and Ollie face unusually rough situations, but Whiteley frames their struggles largely in one-size-fits-all narratives of work ethic and what educational reformers have until recently called “resilience.”
Ollie comes closest to popping off the screen. Lolling on the floor in Wagner’s office, it’s obvious he’s just a big kid, and the unseriousness he radiates with his big, goofy smiles takes a dark turn when the coaches accuse him of faking a concussion to get out of playing a game. (Hence the first time he tells the coach that he’s quitting the team.) Most of the players profiled in the doc desperately need structure while resenting its limits, but Ollie more than most — he’s who you’ll think of first when Coach Stephens shrugs, “All stories aren’t success stories.” Ollie’s got “it” on the field, but when he qualifies EMCC for the national champions, a thrilled assistant coach still feels the need to ask him to play just as hard at every other game.
While spanning an academic year that constantly surprises the doc’s subjects (and us) with its nonstop turbulence, Last Chance U proves reluctant to engage with the larger issues surrounding football beyond EMCC. Brain trauma is only briefly mentioned, and there’s unexpectedly little about how these athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds get by on a day-to-day basis — an issue recently raised by the movement to pay NCAA players. The school staff’s effort to fill the gaps in the students’ lives and academics so they can move on from EMCC is indeed uplifting, but there are an awful many details that Last Chance U lets slip, too.