“Friday Night Lights” isn’t the kind of high school football movie you’d expect, and in fact it bears little resemblance to “Varsity Blues” and its ilk. It’s a sharply drawn portrait of a town and a football team, providing insights that ring with emotional resonance throughout. In the end, the film is memorable not only as a sports film, but as a sociological drama.
Probably the most telling scene in the film is when Permian quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is meeting with college recruiters. After being asked by one of the recruiters if he likes playing football, Mike simply stares back blankly at the man. The recruiter reminds him it’s supposed to be fun, that it’s just a game. Another blank look. After watching “Friday Night Lights” you can see why the question would get such a reaction. When football is what your existence revolves around, it’s hard to enjoy it.
Mike lives in Odessa, Texas, a town with strong ties to the oil industry. And as the industry goes, so too goes the town. And right now the town is in an economic slump, with little prospects left for anyone. There’s not much for the kids in this small town to hope for except a football scholarship that will get them beyond the city limits as fast as humanly possible. The fact that the town is obsessed with the Permian Panthers to an insane degree doesn’t help matters. When 17-year old kids are lionized like sports legends and expected to perform perfectly on the field, it puts pressures on a teenager — the kind of pressure that even most adults can’t handle.
“Friday Night Lights” follows the Permian Panthers from their first practice to the final game of the season on their quest for the State Championship. The film is directed by actor turned director Peter Berg (“The Rundown”), who guides the narrative by expertly weaving in the personal stories with the gridiron action. Berg also seems to have rented Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” and watched it repeatedly before filming, because “Lights” uses a lot of the same jarring camerawork and quick edits on the field to showcase the brutality of the sport. It works incredibly well, and you feel it every time a player is tackled or slammed into the grass.
Adding to the authenticity is the fact that Berg blends in actual footage from the Panthers’ 2003 season into the game scenes and uses some of the actual team’s assistant coaches to fill up the ranks of the movie’s coaching staff. It’s a nice subtle trick and it works — at times you feel like you’re watching a documentary instead of a feature film.
As Permian head coach Gary Gaines, Billy Bob Thornton (“The Alamo”) is excellent as possibly one of the few people in town who has things in perspective. Gaines coaches with fire and passion, but also seems astonished, and at times horrified, that the town life revolves around the team more than his does. Another great performance is by Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher”) as the team’s star running back Boobie Miles. Our first introduction to him is as a cocky player who sees a bright future for himself. That all changes when he’s injured during the first game, and suddenly has to face a very uncertain future. Lucas Black also gives a heartbreaking performance as Mike Winchell, a young man who desperately wants to escape Odessa but is held back by his seriously ill mother.
In the end, “Friday Night Lights” isn’t just a high school football movie. It’s about a town that has lost hope in life and in the future, and now has come together to pin their very existence on a group of high school kids who play five months out of the year. It’s an exhilarating film that is always surrounded by an aura of tragedy, making it recommended viewing for any moviegoer.
Peter Berg (director) / Buzz Bissinger (novel), David Aaron Cohen, Peter Berg (screenplay)
CAST: Billy Bob Thornton …. Coach Gary Gaines
Lucas Black …. Mike Winchell
Garrett Hedlund …. Don Billingsley
Derek Luke …. Boobie Miles
Jay Hernandez …. Brian Chavez