Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Peter Berg
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Lukas Black, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw.
High school football has been the subject of many American movies, ranging from the vapid Varsity Blues through to the inspirational true story of Remember The Titans, and many often buy into the sport as a metaphor for life theme. Friday Night Lights is yet another film set against the background of high school football, but this one takes a different tack as it explores grander themes than just the sport itself.
Football is the life-blood of Odessa, a poverty-stricken small town in the west Texas dustbowl, obsessed with its high school football team. The fathers live vicariously through the achievements of their sons, and success on the football field is seen as the one way to escape a dull existence. The film is set in 1988, when the town hoped that their team, which has been starved of success for several years, would go through the season undefeated and win the prestigious state championship. Enormous pressure is brought to bear on the high school seniors who comprise the team to bring home the trophy and add another chapter in the town’s proud history. Even coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), who has failed in two previous occasions to win the championship for the town, feels the pressure and his position is under threat.
The film justly focuses on a handful of boys from the team, and explores their personal lives, showing how the added pressures, scrutiny and expectations from both parents and townsfolk shape their lives and largely determines their future directions. Bobbie Miles (Derek Luke, from Finding Antwoine, etc) is the team’s arrogant star quarterback, but when an early knee injury ends his season the team finds the pressure mounting. Replacement quarterback Mike Winchell (Lukas Black, all grown up from his American Gothic days) is more worried about his invalid mother than his future. Don Billingsley (newcomer Garrett Hedlund) finds enormous pressure placed on him by his father (country singer Tim McGraw), himself a champion who still wears his premiership ring with pride.
The characters are given life by a dynamic young cast of largely unknown actors, and their natural performances add veracity to the film. Thornton is given little to do, but he lends a certain authority to his role. He offers advice to his young charges and tries to keep them focused on the games ahead.
Based on sports journalist H G Bissinger’s best selling book, Friday Night Lights offers an unflattering depiction of life in a dead end prairie town. Director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things, Welcome To The Jungle, etc) gives the film a gritty documentary feel, with handheld cameras that take us inside the games, and a kinetic editing style. There’s plenty of bruising on-field action here, and the action is superbly choreographed and staged. As with most other films dealing with American football, a knowledge of the intricacies of the game is not essential to enjoying the film.