The citizens of Odessa, Texas, inhabit a society engineered for
the particular kind of glory that accrues to a young man who can
throw the option, nimbly dash past linebackers and make
bone-crushing tackles with reckless abandon. From the 20,000-seat
Ratliff Stadium where Permian High plays its home football games to
the adoring cheerleaders who bake treats for their gridiron heroes,
Odessa is a place with its values firmly and unambiguously set in
place. Filled with disquisitions and beautifully shot in haunting
tones, “Friday Night Lights” is an enthralling portrait
of west Texas’s most important institution.

Adapted from the book by Pulitzer Prize winner H.G. Bissinger,
“Friday Night Lights” is the story of the 1988 Permian
Panthers and their attempt to live up to the monumental
expectations of Odessa by winning the Texas AAAAA football
championship. The team is lead by Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton),
a peripatetic coach who deals with the personal traumas of his
teenage players, the vicarious ambition of the Permian football
boosters and the perpetual doubts of sports talk radio’s
chattering classes. The brash, hubristic running back destined for
the NFL Boobie Miles (Derek Luke, “Antwone Fisher”),
the tortured quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, “Cold
Mountain”) and the stoic lineman Ivory Christian (Lee
Jackson) are a few of the teenagers that Gaines must mold into a
coherent squad. This motley group of wunderkinds and also-rans are
all thrust together in an effort to embrace Odessa’s form of
immortality.

Director Peter Berg does an impressive job capturing the
loneliness of west Texas. He repeatedly uses expansive shots to
show rugged country split by the blacktop of a two-lane highway and
the occasional oil derrick pumping crude from the depths of the
land. Berg’s camera slowly takes in this vast landscape and
he moves the focus to the outskirts of Odessa, then to the center
of the city, and finally the metaphorical heart of the town —
the poured concrete of Ratliff Stadium. Berg is particularly adept
at capturing west Texas in the midst of the 1980s oil bust and the
accompanying economic dislocation. Berg’s Odessa is a
portrait of contrasts— a hardscrabble section filled with
hardluck cases is juxtaposed against the Moët-sipping class of
boosters who provide Permian with the financial wherewithal to run
its extravagant football program. The sadness of Odessa is revealed
through Berg’s grainy shots of decrepit buildings and his
depiction of the rough and tumble lives of Oddessians.

“Friday Night Lights” is a coming-of-age film with
the tincture of darkness, a well-done take on the classic sports
story. The film takes a serious look at the obsession that guides
Odessa and makes the case that the shattered lives and sadness are
directly linked to the distorted emphasis on football. Sometimes
the script lays this on a bit thick. For example, one caller to a
talk radio show bombastically claims that he has found the source
of Permian’s recent struggles, “They’re
doin’ too much learnin’ in the schools.”

Much of the movie takes place between the hash marks. The film
isn’t as effective as Oliver Stone’s “Any Given
Sunday” in transporting the audience inside the chaos of a
huddle, but “Friday Night Lights” successfully conveys
the violence, speed and excitement of the sport. The game sequences
are visually appealing, but they suffer from the temptation to
contrive drama into every pass, run and punt.

Thornton gives a prototypically solid performance that reveals
the tensions inside of Gaines as he struggles to lead his players
to victory while navigating the treacherous currents of football
politics and those who doubt his ability. He is backed up by a cast
consisting mainly of young and relatively inexperienced actors, but
they serve as a strong complement to the formidable Thornton. They
lend a quiet dignity to the small tragedies and triumphs that make
up life on the desolate plains of west Texas.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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