Friday Night Lights

The town of Odessa, Texas is so small and so desolate, the only thing it has going for it is its high school football team team, the Permian Panthers. There are radio talk shows devoted to football, the games are regularly on radio and the coach’s job hangs in the balance every year. The citizens look to the Panthers as heroes or as goats, depending on their record. This puts a lot of pressure on the program and most especially on the kids.

Friday Night Lights follows the Panthers through the 1988 season, from the first practice to the state semi-final game in the Astrodome. It’s based on a true story. And the story is how these guys handle the all pervasive pressure.

Permian has a good team and the expectations are high, mostly because of the their halfback, Boobie Miles, played by Derek Luke. Everyone assumes Boobie is going to sign a letter of intent to play for a major school like USC or UCLA. Boobie’s already counting his signing bonus for the NFL. Then he blows out his knee and is lost for the season, if not his career. That’s when things really get ugly in Odessa.

Most of these sports movies fall apart in the characterization. The genre is prone to stereotypes and it’s often hard to tell the players apart. Not here. Thanks to a good script by David Aaron Cohen and some fine ensemble acting by the young cast, it’s very easy to follow the individual stories.

Billy Bob Thornton, as the head coach, Gary Gaines, turns in a great performance. He’s calm, understated, but seething just below the surface. Just watch his face when the town folk subtly or sometimes not so subtly threaten his job, and you will see what film acting is all about.

Likewise Boobie’s journey from cockiness to denial to despair is a heart wrenching piece of acting. Especially when you think about the early scenes where it’s obvious that his poor kid has nothing to fall back on; he can barely read the college recruiting brochures he gets by the armload in the beginning of the film.

And there are so many others. From Lucas Black, who plays Mike Winchell, the quarterback who has a sick mother and must learn to have fun with the game, to Garrett Hedlund playing Don Billingsley, a fumble prone fullback, trying to deal with his alcoholic father (Tim McGraw in an eye-opening performance) who won state years ago and can’t cope with the anti-climax of his life since.

Peter Berg’s direction is good. The camera moves and jiggles, reinforcing the claustrophobic tension caused by the town’s expectations. The photography catches the dusty heat of the West Texas and the excitement of the high school game. There is some distracting dialog about race that I’m sure was more fully developed in H.G. Bissinger’s book, but probably should have been left out.

Friday Night Lights ranks right up there with some of the great sports movies.

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