If you’ve been craving the kind of small-town, character-driven drama that made Friday Night Lights such a vital series until it went off the air in 2011, a new Netflix documentary series is here to fill that football-shaped hole in your heart. Directed by Greg Whiteley (Mitt), Last Chance U sets its sights on a handful of talented, hardworking, and disadvantaged young men whose futures hinge on their final few months at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC). The result is an empathetic and utterly captivating snapshot of these players’ attempts to find the seam and break from the pack.
Over six hour-long episodes, Last Chance U traps viewers in the pressure cooker of college football. The stakes are higher than a skyscraper — not in a dystopian, the-world-will-implode-unless-Chris-Hemsworth-can-save-us-all way, but on a more individual, human level.
Like FNL’s fictional Dillon, Texas, the town of Scooba, Mississippi — population 732 — forms the backdrop of Last Chance U. As journalist Drew Jubera, who wrote the GQ article on which the Netflix series is based, remarks in the first episode, “The one thing that’s operating is a Coke machine on the sidewalk, and that really kind of tells you all you need to know about the place.”
For the young football recruits, Scooba is the last place they want to be. But EMCC represents their last chance to win that golden ticket: A spot on a Division 1 (“D1”) college football team, a path that leads straight to the NFL. Under the guidance of head coach Buddy Stephens, the EMCC Lions have won three national National Junior College Athletic Association championships over the past five years. A rotund figure with a booming voice, Buddy is an imposing force intent on maintaining the Lions’ dominant streak. He also makes FNL’s Coach Eric Taylor look like an ol’ softie; I can’t quite picture Coach Taylor instructing one of his players to stop being a “goddamn pussy.”
EMCC has become a magnet for what Jubera describes in his article as “the discarded and dispossessed.” Most of the Lions come from small towns in the Deep South where football represents a crucial chance to escape the cycle of poverty, boredom, and incarceration. Some are reluctantly doing penance at EMCC after being kicked out of bigger schools for behavioral problems or failing to maintain their grades. More than one player has an app on his phone counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until he can leave.
Last Chance U forcefully captures the intensity of this last-ditch effort, focusing on a handful of players with particularly gripping stories. Quarterback John Franklin III — a charming, cocky high-school football star from Broward County, Florida — transferred from Florida State, where he had to compete for game time with four other high-profile quarterbacks. But at EMCC, John’s a big enough deal to have finagled his own dorm room. John’s arrival upends quarterback Wyatt Roberts, a scruffy-haired, good-humored player from a hunting family who seems resigned to the possibility that he may not make D1.
D.J. Law, a running back from Haines City, Florida, is the most recruited junior college player in the country. But like many of the Lions, he struggles to keep up his grades — all the talent in the world won’t get him a spot in a D1 school if doesn’t graduate from EMCC. Same goes for Ronald Ollie, a big bear of a defensive tackle who grew up in a trailer in the pinewoods of Mississippi, and whose childhood was marred by a traumatic episode: His father shot and killed his mother before turning the gun on himself.
Over the course of the series, the relationship between Ollie and the team’s academic advisor, Brittany Wagner, becomes the beating heart of Last Chance U. Wagner is white, and most of the players black; some of the series’ funniest and most touching scenes are between Wagner and the team members, who hang out in her small office slouched low in orange chairs, headphones hanging over the tops of their ears. In one scene, one student jokingly tells another that his hair makes him look like Joy Behar. Wagner, baffled, asks how he even knows who that is (he heard the name referenced in a movie), before realizing that he misheard the name as “Joey Behar.” When she shows the students a picture of the real Joy Behar on her computer, they’re all in hysterics.
Wagner emerges as the primary source of support for the players. She tracks them down in person when they ignore her calls and texts about upcoming assignments; after John is caught sneaking out of the dorm room of a girl he barely knows, she tries to get through to him him that women aren’t just body parts. (John is unrepentant: “You know how this shit go.”) When D.J. continues to skip class, she physically drags him into her office and tries to make him understand how important it is that he graduate. “You cannot run from this,” she says. “What are you gonna do? Where are you gonna go?”
But unlike Sandra Bullock’s tough-talking Leigh Anne Tuohy in 2009’s The Blind Side, Wagner is not framed as the team’s great white savior. A single mother, she’s under enough pressure of her own, and as the person whom college recruiters contact to make sure their picks are in good academic standing, she understands how crucial her role is in making sure these talented, hardworking players don’t miss life-changing opportunities because of one bad grade. The coaches constantly refer to the team as a family — they even pray together before games and practices — but the position of the school’s administrators is not lost on the players. Speaking to the camera alone in his dorm room, D.J. admits it’s hard to know if anyone at the school cares about him as a person and not simply an asset to the college’s athletics program.
Last Chance U is rousing in its depiction of the tightrope the players walk in their final months at EMCC. But the series also nimbly captures the full emotional range of this time in these young men’s lives. During one practice, they have a dance-off, offence vs. defense; when Buddy informs them there are ice-cream sandwiches waiting for them nearby, they sprint for the treats like kids at a birthday party.
Such scenes remind you that despite their tough talk and their physical bulk, these guys are still so young, and carry the weight of so much pressure: To win the game, to graduate, to make it to a D1 school and, eventually, the NFL, to make their parents and their hometowns proud. They can see the hole —they just have to run like hell to get through to the other side.