Friday Night Lights (United States, 2004)
If you go to this movie based solely on how it is being portrayed in the trailers and advertisements, you will probably be expecting a feel-good romp through familiar territory - a football version of Hoosiers. Like nearly all sports movies, Friday Night Lights is about redemption; however, instead of wallowing in clichés, Peter Berg's film uses them sparingly. This movie is less about what happens on the field than in the hearts of the players. And, while it is ultimately an emotionally fulfilling experience, it doesn't hide the ugliness in an effort to lionize the characters.
The story, which is based on true events as related in Buzz Bissinger's best-selling book, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, follows the 1988 football season of the Odessa-Permian Panthers, one of the elite high school clubs of West Texas. This is die-hard football country, where stores close so everyone in town can attend the game. Sunday morning is for church. Friday night is for football. There are hopes for an undefeated season. The state championship is almost a given. With a player as talented as James "Boobie" Miles (Derek Luke), the concept of a loss is inconceivable - until Boobie goes down with a severe knee injury in the first game. Suddenly, his supporting cast, including quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) and running backs Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) and Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) must step up. The team's coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), alternately endures the bile and the praise of the town. When the Panthers are winning, he can do no wrong. But when the Panthers are losing, he is persona non grata.
Subplots abound, and these are what enrich Friday Night Lights' brew. After all, when it comes to the on-field action, there are only so many variations on a theme. The film's soul may be closer to Rocky than Hoosiers or The Natural, but there are still plenty of the expected "big" moments, such as when the underachiever makes an important play and when the strong, silent leader fuels a comeback. But, while there is triumph in Friday Night Lights, it doesn't always come where it's expected.
All of the Panthers are dogged by high expectations. Most sports movies are about the underdog coming out of nowhere to achieve a victory. Friday Night Lights is about the pressure to win. Boobie gets a painful life lesson when he sees a promising future vanish in an instant. This teenager, who had always imagined that his talent would take him to the NFL, stares resignedly at a group of garbage men making their morning rounds. Mike, a natural mama's boy, must shake his natural reticence and become a leader. Win or lose, he must learn to grow up. And Don has to resolve the love-hate relationship he has with his drunken father (Tim McGraw), who savored a measure of success two decades ago as a member of a champion Panthers team, and wants the same for his son.
Two things lend Friday Night Lights an aura of verisimilitude: the choice of actors and the manner in which Berg and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler have chosen to present the narrative. The film's style is documentary-like. It is shot using hand-held cameras, with slightly desaturated color and an image that often looks more like it was captured on video than on celluloid. This is not a pretty movie, although it is effective in what it intends to do. Likewise, the decision to use fresh faces relieves us from having to lay baggage at the feet of any of the actors (except, perhaps, Billy Bob Thornton, who disappears chameleon-like into his role). Some of them are in the midst of starting fertile careers (like Derek Luke, who previously played the lead character in Antwone Fisher and is wonderful here), but none is established to the extent his reputation gets in the way of us being able to fully accept him as his character.
Friday Night Lights is being hailed by some critics as the best sports movie ever made. While I think that is hyperbole, Berg's picture is certainly an above average effort that provides a solid emotional punch. The difference between this film and many of those that have come before it is one of perspective. In most sports pictures, the big game at the end is the point. It's why we're in the theater and what we have been waiting for. Here, the game is just a means by which what really matters comes into focus. And that's sufficient to set apart Friday Night Lights.
Friday Night Lights (United States, 2004)
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lee Jackson, Lee Thomspson Young, Tim McGraw
Screenplay: David Aaron Cohen and Peter Berg, based on Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by Buzz Bissinger
Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Music: Deane Ogden
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
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