They say that inside every cliché, a nugget of truth exists somewhere. This idea perfectly sums up Friday Night Lights. If I were to describe the plot and characters to you – which I will in a moment – you might reasonably conclude that this is just another generic sports movie. However, the film examines the world of high school football with such precision that you can see the truth emerging from the things that have become clichéd over the years. I can guarantee that you won’t find anyone with less interest in football than me, but Friday Night Lights is about so much more than football, which is what makes it such a fantastic film.
Based on a true story, the movie is set in the West Texas town of Odessa, where everyone – and I mean everyone – is obsessed with football. The camera glides down Main Street on a Friday night and we can see that every storefront has a sign in the window reading “Gone to Game.” Billy Bob Thornton plays Gary Gaines, the coach of the local high school team, The Permian High Panthers. There’s extraordinary pressure on him to lead his team to a state championship. In fact, his job depends on it. School officials warn him that he’ll be replaced if he doesn’t deliver.
We get to know several players during the course of the film. Derek Luke plays Boobie Miles, the cocky star of the team. He’s injured at the start of the season but, under pressure from his uncle and his own ego, attempts to deny the seriousness of the injury in order to continue playing. Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is the quarterback; he dreams of getting out of Texas someday but feels compelled to stay and care for his mentally ill mother. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is the son of abusive alcoholic Charles (country singer Tim McGraw) who was previously a Panther. Charles has a state championship ring and demands nothing less from his boy.
There have been characters like these in other sports movies, but never have they been portrayed as realistically as they are here. The screenplay isn’t afraid to examine things in intimate detail. For instance, there’s a scene in which Boobie finally acknowledges to himself that he can’t play anymore. Rather than just stopping there, as most films would, the screenplay has him face a genuine personal crisis: his whole life has been built on the idea that he’d someday play pro ball, and now he’s left with no backup plan.
Another really powerful scene shows Billingsley’s father warning him to make the most out of his high school football career because life goes downhill after that. It’s telling that the kid wonders if it’s true. His old man is certainly not the only former town sports star to end up a bitter alcoholic. My favorite scene is the one in which a group of school officials gathers in Gaines’ office to tell him how to organize the team. It’s as though everybody thinks they can do a better job of coaching than the coach. This kind of armchair coaching is common among hard-core sports fans, but it’s taken to an extreme here.
Friday Night Lights is ultimately about the obsession this West Texas community has with football. It attains such monumental importance that the self-esteem of the whole town rests on the performance of a group of high schoolers. As such, the young men are placed under great amounts of pressure. One of them says, “Do you feel seventeen? Because I don’t feel seventeen.” Perhaps the only thing more damaging than the pressure is the reinforcement of the idea that nothing else matters. These kids are repeatedly told that winning a state championship is the most important thing that will ever happen to them, and consequently some of them have pretty messed-up visions of what the rest of their lives will be like. The view of Billingsley’s father is not that different from everyone else’s.
It is admirable how the movie delves into the psychology of a pathological need to win. Director Peter Berg (The Rundown) takes a cold hard look at the phenomenon, and he doesn’t shy away from the more uncomfortable or unseemly elements. At the same time, he gives us a knockout of a sports picture. The football scenes are among the most exciting ever put on film. (And again, I don’t like football.) Because the story is so well developed, the sports scenes really add something important to the overall theme.
I love the ending of Friday Night Lights. I will not give it away for those who are unfamiliar with the story. What I can say is that, merely as a story about one team’s season, it’s a hell of a tale. When combined with the portrait of Texas football fanaticism, it’s even more astonishing. The ending allows the film to address some things that you rarely see dealt with in a sports-related film. Everything combines into a finale that suggests a particular kind of redemption in Odessa. Their town pride, perhaps, has more than one side to it.
The performances are across-the-board solid, with Billy Bob Thornton and Derek Luke doing particularly good work. Tim McGraw, in his film debut, is also strong. Friday Night Lights is a sports movie in the best sense of the term. It understands that sports are played by human beings for very human reasons. Winning isn’t everything, but for some people it’s the only thing. What defines winning is another thing altogether.
( 1/2 out of four)
Friday Night Lights is rated PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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