Review by Dustin Putman
2½ stars out of 4
For most sports fans, football is looked at as a simply enjoyable,
at times exciting, diversion. For the most die-hard supporters, however,
football is a way of life. The people of Odessa—a tiny dust bowl of
a town in western Texas—fall into the latter category, with stores
closing down early and evidently every resident coming out on Friday
nights to see the high school football team face off against a rival.
It is almost a religious experience for them, really, perhaps because
they live in a place where there is little else to do or feel passionate
about. For the players themselves, most of them 17 and facing their
senior year of school, winning or losing could mean the difference
between getting a scholarship to play college football somewhere and
being stuck in the dead-end town forever, their most glorious moments
in life long since past. There aren't too many other options beside these.
Based on a true story that was documented in the book, "Friday Night
Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream," by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist
H.G. Bissinger, "Friday Night Lights" treats the game of football
and the characters who play it with a gritty seriousness and a spontaneous
energy that lifts it above the typical skin-deep sports movies. Seeing
it also only puts to shame the recent baseball comedy, "Mr. 3000,"
which was so lacking in conviction and drive that its very memory
had begun to fade before it was even over. In contrast, "Friday Night
Lights" crackles and pops with jittery force, so beautifully carried
out from a technical standpoint that one hardly notices—at least for
a while—the limited depth of the characters and the fact that the
picture could have been so much more than it ultimately is. Still,
this is a largely appealing drama, the kind of sports movie that anyone,
even non-fans of football (like myself), can get wrapped up in and care about.
Set during the 1988 football season of Odessa's cherished high school
team, the Permian Panthers, director Peter Berg (2003's "The Rundown")
focuses his attention on the dogged coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob
Thornton), and a handful of the players. Coach Gaines places pressure
on his charges as a means of building up their self-esteem, even as
he befriends some of them and takes a rooting interest in their lives.
During the first game of the season, hot-shot quarterback Boobie Miles
(Derek Luke) severely hurts his knee, putting him out of the running
at doing the one thing he knows he has a future at. Chosen to take
Boobie's place at the head of the Panthers is Mike Winchell (Lucas
Black), a reserved people-pleaser dealing with some personal issues.
Also on view are Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), who can never
seem to satisfy his emotionally abusive alcoholic father (Tim McGraw),
and Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez), whose good grades ensure that, out
of all his teammates, he is most likely to escape Odessa with or without
the state championship win.
The most accomplished element in "Friday Night Lights" is its raw
documentary-like feel, the swarming hand-held camerawork and desaturated
colors by cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (2000's "Bait") giving
the pace a "you-are-there" shot of nervy adrenaline. Were it not for
the recognizable actors onscreen and a few unmistakable scripted moments
of high drama, the film could pass for being the real thing. "Friday
Night Lights" is unsentimental in the best way, garnering an emotional
response without reaching for it in obvious ways, and avoiding some
of the genre trappings. True, the picture follows a fairly obligatory
path, with the untimely injury, the pep talks from the coach, and
the climactic big game, but the outcomes of these conventions stray from what is expected.
The characters, unfortunately, hold no such scrutiny, their minimal
development holding the overall experience back from becoming a classic
sports film. The time spent with some of them and their problems—Don
enduring his perpetually hurtful father; Boobie and his caring uncle
(Grover Coulson) dealing with the knee injury; and Mike coming to
terms with who he is and what he wants out of life—is effective from
scene to scene, but they don't add up to much in the long run. Writer-director
Peter Berg and co-screenwriter David Aaron Cohen are neglectful in
deepening the relationships beyond the few scenes each of them are
given. Mike appears unhappy throughout, and does things only to please
his mother, but his issues are never thoroughly uncovered and remain
enigmatic. Brian disappears into the background too often, and there
is no sense of what makes him tick. The friendships between the players
feel skimmed over, denying the still poignant final scenes of the
full impact they deserve. As for Coach Gaines, he is so thinly drawn
for so long that the mere fact that he is the father of a preteen
daughter isn't discovered until the 90-minute mark.
What shades of characterization Coach Gaines does have can be attributed
mostly to Billy Bob Thornton's (2003's "Bad Santa") immersive performance.
Through him, we sense that his character is one who doesn't look at
football with quite the gravity as the rest of the town does, treating
his coaching as a job rather than the be-all-end-all of his world.
He cares for his players, and wants them to break out of the hopeless
small-town existence they are in, but he is just as willing to move
away with his family if a game season's loss causes friction between
himself and the other townspeople. Thornton invigorates the inspiring
locker room talk near the finale with a focused intensity that makes
it feel fresh. Out of the players, Lucas Black (2003's "Cold Mountain")
is excellent as the earnest Mike Winchell, acting much of the time
with his penetrating dark eyes, and Derek Luke (2002's "Antwone Fisher"),
while long in the tooth at 29 to be playing a teenager, brings truth
and heartbreak to his devastated, ailing Boobie Miles. Finally, in
his acting debut, country music singer Tim McGraw is startlingly authentic
as a drunkard father who takes out his frustrations and unhappiness on his son.
On or off the field, "Friday Night Lights" pulsates with energy and
fire, personifying the love many people share for football, as well
as the stakes they put into what is, in essence, just a game. It is
only in dealing with the town itself, and bringing to life the inhabitants
within, where the picture comes up a little short. Because "Friday
Night Lights" is carried off with such aplomb, the viewer cannot help
but care how things turn out. At the same time, the lack of chemistry
between the people—not the actors' faults but the script's—stops the
finished product from fulfilling the profundity it is aiming for.
What is left is an efficient sports movie, consistently involving
and certainly worthwhile, that doesn't quite score an out-and-out touchdown.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman