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Friday Night Lights   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Berg
Writer: David Aaron Cohen, Peter Berg (based on the book by H.G. Bissinger)
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Lee Thompson Young, Lee Jackson, Tim McGraw.

Review by Rob Vaux

"High-school football is a religion, which grows increasingly fundamentalist the closer one gets to Texas."

Friday Night Lights is a football movie, but it's not about winning a trophy. It looks at the sport as a culture: as an ingrained part of the American landscape, and the triumphs and damage that entails. It spikes its drama with the rah-rah expectations of big matches, incredible plays, and earnest young men who learn important lessons about themselves, but its heart lies deeper than that. Football here serves as the fulcrum of an entire society, in which everything -- family, friendship, community -- is distilled into the pressure cooker of fourth and long at the 35.

Oliver Stone took a stab at the same subject with Any Given Sunday, but his overheated hysteria often got in the way of the larger points he was trying to make. Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg sees things more clearly, having a best-selling book by H.G. Bissinger as his guide. Bissinger covered the football program at Permian High -- the pride of Odessa, Texas and one of the most successful high-school football programs in the country. Odessa's residents lived and died by the fortunes of their team: the sidewalks rolled up every night at game time, little old ladies had the playbook memorized, children got their pictures taken with the quarterback. And expectations couldn't have been higher in the fall of 1988, when Coach Gary Gaines was tasked with bringing home a state championship.

With that as a backdrop, Berg frames the action from the viewpoint of six young players, all of whom have different views of their role within the team. Hotshot Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is on a sure track to the NCAA, instilled with the belief that no force on Earth can bring him low. Nitty-gritty quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is consumed with the responsibilities of leadership while simultaneously caring for his ailing mother (Connie Cooper). Running back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) struggles with the expectations of his father (Tim McGraw), a former Permian champion who has since sunk into alcoholic perdition. Above them all stands Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), paid a sultan's ransom for his position and yet straightjacketed by the community with the impossible goal of absolute perfection.

The stereotypes are comfortable, and their story arcs generally fail to surprise us. We more or less know what's going to happen to each character and Friday Night Lights does little to discourage our preconceptions. But much to its credit, it refuses to simply pass through the clichés blindly. Instead, it focuses on how these young men are shaped by the assumptions and expectations of those around them. On the one hand, they're treated like gods: cheerleaders fling themselves at their feet, shop owners dispense free goods like candy, and the wink-wink nudge-nudge of academic favoritism runs just under the surface. But at the same time, the town imparts upon them inhuman responsibilities, far outstripping the expectations of a mere game. The joys of competing -- the ups and downs of athletic sport -- are exacerbated to almost mythic proportions. Failure means the destruction of life as you know it, and even success is a brief and fleeting thing. For while the lucky few may escape Odessa on a college scholarship, the rest are told time and again that there is nothing to look forward to after the season ends. The good times, they are informed, will essentially end at 17; in 20 years, they'll be just another bunch of good ole boys, swilling Lone Star at the local truck stop and mooning about that great game they once played against Midland.

Friday Night Lights presents that equation with surprising fairness and honesty. It neither judges the atmosphere that created it, nor soft-pedals its uglier realities. Berg looks straight at the game's dark underbelly -- the vicarious living through untested youth, the subtle hints of racism, the appalling values that make it okay to cripple your foe as long as you win the game -- and yet, he argues, that darkness shades a crucible where great things can happen: where enduring values can be instilled, the boundaries of what's possible can be tested, and yes, memories can be made that will last a lifetime. Friday Night Lights celebrates that greatness without ignoring its often steep costs. Punctuated by Gaines' climactic speech -- part of a fine performance by Thornton -- it closes with a sense of perspective and morality, facing the realities of this lifestyle in a unique and ultimately fulfilling way. We end up in the expected championship game, in which Permian's plucky little Davids square off against a standard-issue Goliath, but the excitement and drama of that moment are the frosting, not the cake. Friday Night Lights has bigger things on its mind, and it refuses to be distracted until it finds them.

Review published 10.07.2004.

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