Friday Night Lights
directed by Peter Berg
starring Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Derek Luke and Tim McGraw
They take their High School football very, very, very seriously in Texas. Each Friday night almost every town in the state shuts down early in order to watch football. It’s as if the entire state literally comes to a complete standstill. The fervor for High School football helps define who Texans are socially and culturally.
It’s an interesting social compact. The coaches are told quite plainly that they need to win or else. The fans show up rain or shine to root their teams on. The players are treated with special regard and venerated as gladiators. In fact, the adoration bestowed on the youth that play high school football in Texas rivals the stardom of many pro athletes.
This intriguing competitive and social mix constitutes the core of Peter Berg’s latest film, Friday Night Lights. Adapted from H.G. Bissinger’s best selling novel, Friday Night Lights chronicles the highlights, lowlights and behind the scenes drama of 1988’s Permian High Panthers. The Panthers are not just any football team. They are a team of gritty, feisty and determined young men that that each week hoist the aspirations, broken dreams and hopes of their town (the economically drained Odessa, Texas) on their shoulders. Before the players suit up for their first scrimmage it is made abundantly clear to them that they must win State. The town will accept nothing less than perfect from their gridiron heroes.
The players represent a microcosm of their community. They are athletes who dream and hope for a better life away from dreary Odessa. What these kids want is pretty simple; they want their life to not end at 17. They want to play pro ball, they want to buy houses for their families and most of all they want to win.
Friday Night Lights is also a story about everyday teens dealing with very real problems. They care for aging relatives, grapple with abusive parents, confront peer pressure and fend off the demons of self-confidence and failure. The Panthers are everyday teens with the same everyday problems that millions of their contemporaries contend with, except for one small caveat; they are expected to be superheroes on the gridiron one night a week for half of a year.
The Panthers are led by Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), a man with a can-do attitude and a tough-as-nails demeanor. This is one of Billy Bob Thornton’s more cerebral acting turns. He portrays Gaines as an intense man with an unbending desire to win at all costs. Thornton is terrific in Friday Night Lights because he pays attention to subtlety and detail, thus bringing a fairly uninteresting character to life. As the film unfolds we learn that beneath Gaines the taskmaster and playmaker is a man whose heart is full of compassion, desire and hope. He wants the kids he coaches to succeed in life on and off the filed. He wants them to ‘fly away’ to better things and reach inside themselves to become men. He’s a coach who wants what’s best for the team, not the individual.
One of the movie’s most pleasant surprises is country music singer Tim McGraw. McGraw stars as Charlie Billinglsey, the abusive father of Permian’s third string running back. Charlie is a tortured, alcoholic ex-football player who wants his son to succeed in all the ways he did at Permian. McGraw goes all out, making Charlie terrifying, vulgar and psychotic. Through him we see a man on the edge, who pushes his son to be what he once was.
There are times when it appears as if Derek Luke is going to walk away with Friday Night Lights. He plays Boobie Miles, the team’s star running back. Miles is the walking, talking and breathing embodiment of cockiness. His swagger and bravado is backed up by quick spurts up the middle and fast cuts from the backfield. He is Permian’s best athlete and its biggest vocal champion. Boobie Miles is the film’s symbol for hubris and excess. He is both a star on the rise and a fool waiting for a fall. Just as the movie begins to slow down in pace, Derek Luke comes along to shake it up. His big smile and off the cuff one-liners provide the film’s best comedic moments. After Miles becomes injured, we see Luke change gears and become a man terrified by what he could become. Luke really wins over the audience by brilliantly shifting Boobie from the film’s brightest light to its darkest burned-out star. In the last quarter of Friday Night Lights, Miles breaks out as a character. We see him turn from being a self-centered, selfish jock into a caring, frightened and inspirational team player.
Friday Night Lights again teams Billy Bob Thornton with Lucas Black (Sling Blade, All the Crazy Horses). This time around, Black stars as Mike Winchell, Permian’s star quarterback. Winchell has the world ahead of him but refuses to look forward because he cares for his ailing mom (Connie Cooper). With the help of Coach Gaines, he comes into his own as a man and as an athlete. Although Gaines rides him about his passing skills and his mental approach to the game, the two form a strange bond. Gaines is the catalyst for his change. He sees someone in Mike’s unlimited potential and methodically nurtures him into a hardnosed warrior QB who is comfortable with leading his team on last minute drives. As this happens we see the team grow and win on and off the turf.
Although Thornton is the star of Friday Night Lights, Lucas Black is the glue that holds it all together. He’s an actor of tremendous potential who capably conveys much of Mike’s emotions through his eyes and expressions. We can see the inner demons tugging at Mike and holding him back. Black manages to make Mike come to life. He’s created the most likable character in the movie without sacrificing substance and depth.
Director Peter Berg (Rundown) filmed the movie on video with jarring and jolting camera shots that create some of the most realistic game scenes captured in any Hollywood football film. He has also managed to convey the very essence of loneliness and the humdrum of living in a small town during tough times. Berg’s filming of bleak Odessa as a life-sucking dead-end town helps illustrate the importance these teens place in getting out. His masterstroke however is building a solid ensemble cast around Thronton, who is at his best when his starring nods are low-key affairs.
Like Miracle last year, Friday Night Lights will be a box-office success. Although it is just another “inspirational sports movie,” it delivers on many levels. It’s a film about teamwork, perseverance, coming of age and being true to yourself. But it also something more, it’s a movie that delves into the dark psyche of sports and how it affects fans, athletes, coaches and the communities around it.
Friday Night Lights Movie: www.fridaynightlightsmovie.com