Friday, January 6, 2017

Now on Netflix: Last Chance U (2016)

Last Chance U (2016) - Directed by Adam Ridley, Greg Whiteley.

By Kenny Howell

Last Chance U should really be called Brittany Wagner is the No. 1 Lady.

Wagner is the academic advisor for East Mississippi Community College's football team, which is the focus of this Netflix documentary series. Her job is to take kids that have had a tough lot in life, some of it brought on by their own actions, and get them eligible and graduated so they can go onto bigger schools to play football, or just further their education after their two years at EMCC.

Wagner has the patience of a saint because these kids wear her out by not showing up to class, not doing their assignments, waking up late and missing team breakfast, and many other assortment of activities that a lot of wayward 20-year-olds do. But she keeps a stern face throughout and stays on these kids, never giving up on them. Some of them have never had anyone care enough about them to push them in that direction, or some did, but haven't had the right academic influence to get them where they need to go. Wagner does that with such energy and grace even when she is pushed to her wits end.

Wagner isn't the main focus of the documentary, though she is a big part of it. It is the team itself, a junior college powerhouse that repeatedly gets kids sent on to bigger schools, and have nine current NFL players, one of them being New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. As a title card says in the beginning, the average D1 school has seven. It's quite amazing for a small community college in the middle of nowhere Mississippi to do that, but they do it year after year. The kids depicted in this film are now playing for bigger schools like John Franklin III, who just played in the Sugar Bowl last week for the Auburn Tigers in a loss to Oklahoma. They all have their own battles, mainly within themselves, and they work through it over the series on the field and off with the help of Wagner and the coaching staff.

The head coach is Buddy Stephens, an over the top man that built this program to what it is today. He has problems keeping his emotions in check, and loves to run up the score, though he would argue that is what he has to do to impress to pollsters to get a chance to play for the JUCO National Championship. He's an interesting guy cause he toes that line where it seems like he could be a help and hindrance for his team, and it is hard to really pin him down.

The documentary is filled with interesting characters from the townsfolk to the players. One of the more interesting cases is Ron Ollie, a big defensive tackle with tons of talent, but not much willpower in class, or anything really. Both his parents died when he was five in a tragic event, so he has had a tough life since that time. He's a big teddy bear of a guy, but you are always afraid he is going to give up, and who knows where that leads him.

But the heart and soul has to be Wagner who keeps the engine running. She is the one behind that scenes that makes sure everyone is where they need to be. Luckily, the documentary filmmakers decided to give her plenty of time on screen, because it is great to have that reminder we have educators out there like her doing whatever needs to be done to give these kids everything they need to succeed.

Last Chance U is now streaming on Netflix.

Rating: ***1/2

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