Friday Night Lights, based on the true-life account of a 1988 high school football team out of Odessa, Texas, may well be as advertised: One of the greatest sports stories ever told: and a sports movie that doesn’t pander to the sports-movie formula — no overly-dramatic flourishes, no trick plays, no late-game heroics, and none of the overblown sports cliches that tend to drive sports films. The sports cliches and plot contrivances are still there, mind you - they are just relegated to the background rather than navigating the story from plot point to plot point. Friday Night, instead, focuses on the harsh, grittiness of the culture of sport, and the caste systems that make up high-school football.
The movie follows Permian High — one of the most successful football programs in the nation — through the 1988 season, from opening day at training camp until the state championship game. The residents of Odessa have little else to live for outside of Friday nights, and they follow a high school football team with brutal religious zealotry — 17-year-old quarterbacks are the Gods of Odessa, and every fumble feels like another apple falling from the tree. Despite the sluggish economy of the region, Odessa has built a $5 million stadium at the school with seating for 20,000, a detail that says just as much about the solitary existence of the Texan community as it does the pressure applied to these high school students, who must suffer not only through vigorous sessions with the media, but abide the unrealistic expectations of the fans and their parents. At one point, in fact, a talk radio listener calls in after a Panther loss and complains that the players are “doing too much learning and not enough practicing.”
There are no heroes in Friday Night Lights, and even the successes of the coaches and players are tempered by the realities of their lives off the field. The director, Peter Berg — who also wrote and directed the overlooked but surprisingly effective 1998 bachelor-party noir, Very Bad Things — frames the action evenly on the football players and Coach Gary Gaines. Boobie Miles, portrayed marvelously by Derek Luke (Antoine Fisher) is the flash and grin of Friday Night; he dances and dazzles onscreen, scoring one touchdown after another with the effortlessness of a ballet dancer. Yet, after his character learns his career — and life — will likely be sidelined by a knee injury, Luke puts in such a powerfully modest, gut-wrenching turn as the fallen hero, it’s hard to imagine even the most masculine of football fans won’t be emotionally moved.
Lucas Black — who first teamed with Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade — plays the team’s quarterback, Mike Winchell, with a honeyed southern accent that might sound caricatured to those unfamiliar with drawls in the Deep South. Winchell takes over the team leadership after Miles’ injury, and he must battle his own insecurities on the football field, while dealing with a mentally ailing mother at home. The running back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) must contend with an abusive, alcoholic father (played effectively by country singer Tim McGraw), who can’t seem to forget his own long-dead gridiron glory days and thrust that heaviness on his son as a point of both humiliation and misbegotten inspiration.
Billy Bob Thornton also delivers his characteristic subtle, expressive performance as Coach Gary Gaines. Thornton brings to the role a feeling of quiet intensity, coaching his football team with the same sense of burden he had in relation to the stolen loot in A Simple Plan, showing jump-out-of-your-skin restraint despite the heaving obligation of a town on his shoulders. A coach, apparently, that knows how to create a winning football program, Gaines is also wise to the cultural dynamics of Odessa: “There ain’t much difference between winning and losing,” Gaines tells his quarterback, “except the way the world treats you.”
For the brutish football fan, there is no shortage of quick edits and crunching blows; and the documentary style, replete with saturated colors and shaky handheld cameras, lends verisimilitude to the rousing action scenes.
This review was originally published in 2004.
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