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"Expertly infuses humanity into the unforgiving, obsessive world of high school football."
"Simple and spectacular, you really gain a sense of a desolate Texas landscape."
"A diamond in the rough when it comes to sports movies."
Friday Night Lights  

Cast

Coach Gaines: Billy Bob Thornton
Mike Winchell: Lucas Black
Don Billingsley: Garrett Hedlund
Boobie Miles: Derek Luke
Brian Chavez: Jay Hernandez
Ivory Christian: Lee Jackson
Chris Comer: Lee Thompson Young
Charles Billingsley: Tim McGraw
L.V. Miles: Grover Coulson
Review October 2004

Are you ready for some football? Okay, maybe it's not professional football, but don't tell that to the legions of fans that crowd Ratliff Stadium every Friday night to watch their beloved Permian Panthers take the field. For them, this is the greatest show on earth. And this inside look is based on the 1990 New York Times best seller, "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream" by H.G. Bissinger. Following one of Texas' most successful team during a prototypical season, "Friday Night Lights" highlights the personal struggles, the pressures to win, and the hopes and dreams that rest on any given Friday. Produced by Brian Grazer, also known for "Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind," and "8 Mile," "Friday Night Lights" is yet another great example of absorbing character drama. Resisting the urge to showboat, the film expertly infuses humanity into the unforgiving, obsessive world of high school football.

Every Friday night from September to December, roughly 20,000 people gather beneath the lights of Ratliff Stadium, the largest high school stadium in the country, to watch their hallowed Panthers play football. This is West Texas football, a gridiron stage that has all the trimmings of a professional football franchise - die hard fans, unworldly pressures, and idolized athletes. And it's under these conditions that Coach Gary Gaines (Thornton) works. With his job on the line, Gaines enters the 1998 season in charge of the most successful football program in all of Texas. But this year, even more than ever, expectations are high in the hopes that the Panthers go on to win their fifth state championship.

Fortunately for Gaines, he has one of the best players in the country in Boobie Miles. Nicknamed "the great black hope," Miles' play is matched only by his ego. And he is almost a sure candidate for any top 10 school. Also along for the season: Mike Winchell, a quarterback more concerned about his mother's health than X's and O's; Chris Comer, a scrappy third string running back with a chip on his shoulder; Ivory Christian, the soft spoken defensive leader; and Troy Billingsley, at odds with an overbearing, alcoholic father. As the season unfolds and injuries and pressures increase, we see parents living their lives through their children, dreams of stardom collapse, and unsung heroes take center stage. And regardless of whether games are won or lost, it's the kind of experience that will shape their lives forever.

Directed and adapted to screen by Peter Berg, "Friday Night Lights" is a fascinating look at the devotion and delusion of high school athletics in middle America. Based off the acclaimed book by H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, the story dissects a season in the life of six high school football kids, their coach, and the small town that worships them. But there's something here that distinguishes it from the rest in the genre - its predilection with normalcy. Like many sports movies, there is a tendency to amplify characterizations and relationships for emotional effect. Yet, with "Friday Night Lights," the extremes are ignored in favor of simplicity and truth. This gives the significant arcs more meaning because they come across as real and concrete, without bias or exaggeration.

To relay the story, the film hones in on the relationships between parents and their kids. Boobie Miles and his overly supportive uncle, Mike Winchell and his ailing mother, and Troy Billingsley and his alcoholic father. Each character has motivations and personal conflicts on and off the field and each of the actors brings vulnerability and good intent to their roles despite the unusual circumstances. For instance, Boobie Miles' frustration with injury, Mike Winchell's realization that he may be parentless, and Troy's search for his father's approval. All of the players, specifically Black, Hudlund, and Luke, downplay their roles, evoking heroism and integrity without succumbing to caricature. And it is important to note Billy Bob Thornton's well-acted and understated performance. Not once does he take the stage away from the kids - a testament to his uncanny ability to make the ordinary less ordinary.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the main character of the film: Odessa. From the opening shot of an abandoned highway to additional shots of oil wells and acres of farmland, there's no question where you are. And when the lights go on, it's like an oasis in the dark. This is the work of strong direction, building and emphasizing atmospherics through sight and sound. The sound of which can be attributed to Austin guitar quartet, Explosions in the Sky. This group projects a moody ambiance, one that provokes feelings of isolation, yet comfort. Tracks like "From West Texas," "Home," and "The Sky Above, The Field Below" are terrific accoutrements in setting the scene. And it gave me the same vibe as "Lost in Translation" did last year. Simple and spectacular, you really gain a sense of a desolate Texas landscape.

If there were a problem with the film, it would be the disturbing use of ADE (attention deficit editing). This hyper editing began in the sports film genre with Oliver Stone's grungy "Any Given Sunday." And ironically, the football coordinator from that film, Allan Graff, directed the second unit here, mixing 100 simulated plays with real clips from the Panthers' season. While some films benefit from the technique, such as the recent "Wimbledon," which transformed a static game of tennis into a dynamic one, "Lights" takes an already dynamic game and gives it visual steroids. Over the top, the cuts take us from the players to the coaches to the fans to the skyline to the cheerleaders to the band to the players on the sideline to the parents to the officials and back around in a matter of seconds. The irony, of course, is that the drama is suspenseful enough, the characters are intriguing enough, and the situations are momentous enough - without the need for any acceleration.

"Friday Night Lights" is a diamond in the rough when it comes to sports movies. Although the film could reap many benefits from fewer edits, it's nice to see the filmmakers successfully capture the essence of Bissinger's book and the essence of high school football fanaticism. In particular, the character drama that proliferates during the season is credible and compelling. These are likable kids thrown into unusual circumstances. And they are human, occasionally needing a shoulder to cry on or a guardian to steer them in the right direction. Says Coach Gaines: "Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn't let them down." It's also realizing that football is just a game and recognizing the importance of family and friendships - the real message behind the Mojo.



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