Football is a big deal in the south. You don’t need to watch Last Chance U on Netflix to learn that. There are about a dozen scripted movies about how seriously football is taken south of the Mason Dixon Line. As a result, Last Chance U putting the football program of Eastern Mississippi Community College (EMCC) under the microscope will not expose viewers to a new worldview about sports. But even if the “football is life” story is familiar to you, Last Chance U is still worth a watch because of its depth and beauty.
The cinematography is gorgeous, particularly when it comes to capturing the kinetics of football. The slow motion action shots make fully padded 300 pound men look as graceful as ballerinas. You quickly find out that most players that wind up at EMCC get there because they have a complicated story, typically one that involves some poor choices and few other options. These stories are laid bare throughout the series and are typically both heart wrenching and fascinating. The players featured in Last Chance U are still two huge steps away from their shared ultimate goal of playing in the NFL. From EMCC they must make a Division 1 team and from there get drafted into the NFL. It’s a perilous route and any reasonable person knows that most of these players will never make it. As a result, behind their bravado and confidence there seems to be an underlying sense of desperation that colors a lot of their behavior.
The filmmakers spend a lot of time focusing on Brittany Wagner, the academic advisor to the athletic program, or the “eligibility specialist” in her own words. And the choice to focus on her is appropriate given the tight-rope act she walks everyday trying to keep football-minded young men on the field by keeping them in the classroom enough to meet at least the minimum requirements to make it to the next level in their playing career. Wagner seems like an honest and good-hearted woman in a job that is far too big for one person within a system that is far too rigged to be considered legitimate education. But you quickly get the sense that Wagner truly wants to help these young men that have very few positive influences in their life and even less experience taking them seriously.
Last Chance U is a departure from the usual Netflix original programming in that it is reality-based docu-drama about sports. As such, the subject matter and style may not overlap perfectly with the core Netflix audience. Last Chance U would feel more at home at ESPN. But viewers that are not hardcore football fans may find Last Chance U even more interesting than the typical sport-consuming ESPN-loving crowd that has seen this type of story several times over in different packaging. But Last Chance U does set itself apart even with a subject matter that has been nearly saturated. Coach Buddy Stephens is a caricature of the red-faced screaming southern football coach that appears to be one turnover away from a coronary that you’d see in the movies. What makes Stephens and the bizarre culture of EMCC more interesting than scripted football movies is that it’s real. Shockingly real. And it’s all captured beautifully for your amazement, and at times, disappointment.