Netflix’s Stellar UNTOLD series of sports documentaries returns with a bang in UNTOLD: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, a two-part film which retells one of the strangest stories in college football history. In 2012, sports fans and the public at large were gripped by the inspirational story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate in the Fighting Irish’s undefeated regular season. Te’o’s success was set against the background of personal tragedy; his grandmother and girlfriend had both died separately on the same day that September, and he dedicated his season to them. The only problem? His girlfriend didn’t exist.
The Gist: An All-American football player on one of the most storied teams in his sport. An inspirational story of overcoming a heartbreaking loss. An inspired season. It was like something straight from a storybook… and maybe that’s because, as it turned out, it was all fiction. Days after the 2012 college football season ended, a report emerged that Manti Te’o’s supposedly-deceased girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had never existed. In a story that revealed the concept of “catfishing” to millions of people for the first time, the public eventually learned about an elaborate and stunning fiction weaved by an acquaintance of Te’o’s, Naya Tuiasosopo.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist marks the beginning of the second wave of standalone documentaries in Netflix’s UNTOLD series, following five separate–and exceptionally-good–films in 2021. It’s Netflix’s answer to ESPN’s long-running 30 for 30 series, but it’s in no way second fiddle; these are legitimately great documentaries, and among the very best sports content Netflix has to offer.
Performance Worth Watching: We get to hear from the two central figures in this story–both Manti Te’o and his catfisher, Tuiasosopo (now out as a trans woman, which she was not at the time the story broke or when many of the other figures involved were interviewed). The entire story exists between the actions of Te’o and Tuiasosopo, and the fact that both are involved makes this an especially well-rounded retelling of it. Te’o speaks with pain, gravity and seriousness; he sounds like a man who’s had the weight of the world on his shoulders since he could first walk.
Memorable Dialog: “My dad asked me when I was five years old what I wanted to be,” Te’o recalls of his upbringing, “and I told him I wanted to be the best. He took it literally, and he trained me.” Sports broadcaster Alex Flanagan recalls the massive burden for Te’o coming in as a freshman at Notre Dame: “Manti Te’o was a kid whose reputation preceded him. Notre Dame had huge expectations of him before he even stepped onto campus. There was an expectation that he was going to make an impact as soon as he arrived in South Bend.”
Sex and Skin: None; there are discussions of gender identity, but nothing sexual.
Our Take: College football is a place full of unbelievable characters, unbelievable stories, and unbelievable things happening.
Even in light of that, the story of Manti Te’o and Lennay Kekau was jaw-dropping.
You have to understand the context, first, though. Notre Dame is perhaps college football’s most singular brand; from Knute Rockne to Rudy, the school is practically synonymous with the sport, love them or hate them. (Full disclosure: I fall in the latter camp.) By the late aughts, though, the program had fallen into a long and frustrating lull; they weren’t competing for titles, they weren’t dominating the national conversation. They weren’t waking up the echoes, as the saying goes.
Manti Te’o’s arrival on campus heralded a new era; the team was gearing up under new head coach Brian Kelly, and they’d quickly shed their mediocrity for relevance once again. Things came to a head in the 2012 season–Te’o’s senior season, which he’d returned for despite scouts projecting him as a first-round NFL draft pick had he left early. The Irish started the season unranked, but won–and kept winning. Twelve straight wins, an undefeated season and a date with the Alabama Crimson Tide in the BCS National Championship game.
In virtually every game, viewers heard about Manti Te’o, the team’s best player and emotional core. And in every discussion of Manti Te’o, we heard about the tragedy of Lennay Kekua, Te’o’s girlfriend who had died at the beginning of the season. Te’o dedicated his season to her, and it was an incredible season. It was an incredible story. Even the Irish’s eventual loss to Alabama in the title game didn’t dampen that; Te’o played well in the game, and projected to go in the first round of the NFL draft.
A week later, the story broke. Reporters from the website Deadspin, acting on a tip, did some research and discovered that Kekua was not a real person, but rather a hoax perpetrated on Te’o by an acquaintance. It wasn’t clear when–or if–Te’o had known about the truth, and how active he had been in continuing the fiction, but he quickly became the butt of jokes on the internet and late-night TV.
Nearly ten years later, the story’s still hard to believe, but there’s been just enough distance to appreciate the complexities of it, and The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist is a timely–and thoughtful–look back. It doesn’t treat the story as farce, as so many did at the time, but as the tragedy that it is. We learn about the pressures that Te’o had faced his entire life, and the struggles that Tuiasosopo had with dysphoria. No one is excused for their actions in the story, but a necessary dose of nuance and context is supplied here; these aren’t punchlines, they’re people.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Netflix has yet to miss on a single one of the UNTOLD documentaries, and they’re not about to start with this one. It’s an unbelievable story and a more-than-worthy treatment of it.