Friday, November 10, 2006

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Anyone who has been through Texas will recognize the landscape of Odessa, the setting for “Friday Night Lights.” The country is scrubby, dry, and flat, and human habitation there is necessary only because of the oil industry and maybe some farming. It takes this kind of desolation to drive people to follow high school sports, and in Odessa, TX the sport is football. Ratliff Stadium, the high school football venue, seats 19,500, and the population of Odessa is about 93,000. You do the math. In a state that loves its football, Odessa still stands out as a high school football town.
“Friday Night Lights” is based on the book of the same name by H.G. Bissinger, which follows the Permian High Panthers of Odessa and their run at the 1988 Texas state championship. The film is a dramatization of the events, but DVD interviews with the original players suggest that “Friday Night Lights” is very faithful to the actual events and people. Understand that this is not exactly an underdog story. Prior to 1988, the Panthers had already won 4 state titles and a national championship. In a town where the high school football stadium can seat 20% of the population, you can imagine that the coach and players feel a certain amount of pressure. That pressure only increases when their star running back, Boobie Miles (played by Derek Luke), blows out his knee, essentially ending his football career and presumably dashing the Panthers’ hopes for a big season. While the town vents its frustration on Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), Gaines focuses on keeping the rest of his team together, bringing out the leading men in players who were accustomed to being Boobie Miles’s supporting cast.
In my opinion, sporting events are really rather trivial affairs, but sports movies have always succeeded in bringing out the drama in these seemingly unimportant games and lending gravitas to the outcomes. “Friday Night Lights” does not disappoint in the drama department, and you don’t have to be a football fan to wind up caring about the Permian High coach and players. Lead actors Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, and Lucas Black deliver excellent, natural performances. Without being preachy, the younger actors make you feel the ridiculous pressure placed on these teenage athletes. As quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) puts it, “I don’t feel 17.”
This movie is also remarkable for one particular scene in which three of the players are out shooting skeet. In most Hollywood movies, generally made by liberal urbanites, you rarely see regular people target shooting, using a gun in self-defense, or just legally carrying a gun. If someone besides a cop, soldier, or criminal has a gun in a movie these days, you can pretty much bet that they will end up shooting their child with it or having some other horrible tragedy as a result. In “Friday Night Lights,” though, the shotgun doesn’t make another appearance. No one kills himself with it or uses it in a misguided bank robbery or anything. It’s pretty refreshing.
“Friday Night Lights” will not change the way you look at the world, or even football, but it is an extremely enjoyable, accessible film. You can’t go wrong with this one.
4 stars out of 5.

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