Friday Night Lights
2004Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Derek Luke
s a sports fan, I’m always on the lookout for good sports movies. Rarely do sports flicks (of recent vintage, anyway) truly get the game they are portraying, both in terms of the in-game action and the strange, behind the scenes world that athletes and those close to them inhabit. Football movies in particular tend to rely on in-your-face, MTV-style editing that makes every five-yard touchdown pass look like the incomprehensible outtakes of a particularly bad Linkin Park video. Which is why Friday Night Lights, with its laudable commitment to realism both on and off the field, comes as such a refreshing change of pace.
Friday Night Lights, you must understand, is not a great movie. But it is a very good one, and at the very least should provide a thoughtful, entertaining two hours for those people looking for something to see on a Saturday night. It’s less a football movie per se than a sociological examination of a football-obsessed small town and the characters who populate it. In that sense, the film is at its best when delving into the motivations, dreams, and heartbreak of people who are unable to focus on life outside of a game played with an oblong pigskin ball.
After the game, the team will go out for a meal of French-fried pertaters, mm-hmm.
Here is where the heart of Friday Night Lights lies. The depiction of Odessa, Texas, a tiny bit of civilization in the middle of vast expanses of dirt and scrub brush, is as a place of almost singular focus, obsessed with the fortunes of their high school football team. A poor, insulated community, there is little else to aspire to besides the state football championship. The dreams of adults are displaced onto their kids, a group of seventeen-year olds under almost unimaginable pressure. As one father says to his son, the starting fullback on the team, “this will be the best time of your life. It’s babies and bills from here on out.” Such a mentality explains why Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), the superstar running back, attempts to play though a ligament tear in right knee. Having neglected school in favor of football stardom (he barely knows how to read), after Miles tears his knee he finds himself gazing at the garbage men outside of his house, knowing that his future might lie with them, instead of college and the NFL.
Into this pressure cooker atmosphere comes Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), a decent man nearly overwhelmed by the unrealistic expectations and obsessive fervor surrounding West Texas football. Thornton plays Gaines brilliantly, nearly recoiling when a local booster chirpily refers to Boobie Miles as “that big nigger”, but afraid to challenge her lest he offend the people who hold his livelihood in their hands. Indeed, the whole cast is exceptional, from Thornton at the top to Lucas Black as the starting quarterback with a mentally ill mother, Luke as the cocky and then heartbroken Miles, and Tim McGraw in a revelatory performance as a drunken, abusive father obsessed with his own failures and his son’s success.
"Oh, look he's checking you out." "Omigod, what a cutie—does my ass look fat? Be honest."
Ultimately, director Peter Berg shifts away from the character-based realism that elevates the film above its sports-based brethren, and focuses on Odessa’s improbable run to the state championship. It’s sentimental to be sure, but it’s hard-earned sentiment, with the added benefit that it’s based in reality (Friday Night Lights was a best-selling book from Sports Illustrated reporter H.G. Bissinger, who spent a year in Odessa chronicling the football team and the town that supported it). Moreover, Berg knows his way around the game of football, filming the action sequences as hard-hitting examples of athleticism but never falling in love with his own ability to wield a camera.
Again, Friday Night Lights is not quite great, but it is well-made, entertaining, and pulls off the rare sports movie achievement of making its story and action as feeling close to real. Think of it as a Varsity Blues made by competent professionals interested in honesty over exploitation. In the frustratingly mediocre world of sports movies, that’s close to as good as it gets.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-10-21