Sweat and strain under the Friday Night Lights
Right from the git-go, “Friday Night Lights” wants to establish the gritty edge of its high school football drama — almost as if declaring this was not going to be another rah-rah Disney product like “Remember the Titans.” We meet the players from Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, and it’s clear they are an imperfect, brooding bunch of jocks. They drink hard, chase skirts, and have no intention of suddenly breaking into a Motown song in the locker room.
This strategy, along with jittery hand-held camera techniques and the use of grainy filters actually serve as distractions that “Friday Night Lights” doesn’t need in order to be a very good film.
By casting arrestingly authentic young men, a (once again) instinctively perfect Billy Bob Thornton as the coach, and capturing the essence of the dusty, football-crazed Texas oil-town, director Peter Berg spins a stirring, hard hitting tale that’s not afraid to examine the downside of gridiron obsession.
For starters, there’s the incredible pressure of the high expectations to “win State” that everyone in town places on the team including the quarterback (Lucas Black), the flashy star running back (Derek Luke) and wide receiver (Garrett Hedlund) who is harshly put upon by the ugly behavior of his drunken father (country music star Tim McGraw who is suitably detestable in his movie debut).
Thornton, who skillfully handles the complex nature of a coach who must bark at his athletes to motivate them, is effectively restrained with other community members and is a tender father figure around home.
Though he gives a magnificently heartfelt locker room speech towards the end of the film, Gary Gaines (Thornton) is not the cliched cardboard cut-out coach as portrayed in so many other films. In one critical sub-plot he makes a loathsome decision to sacrifice the health of one of his athletes to win a game.
The film neither condescends to demonize him nor does it gloss over the pain when, in a particularly gut-wrenching scene that will melt even the toughest fan, an athlete sees his lifelong dream crumble.
“Friday Night Lights” also features some of the most bone-crushingly real football sequences, perhaps spending too much time on the physical nature of football at the expense of tactical strategy.
And though the venue is a small Texas town in 1988 the score features lots of thumping hip-hop instead of more valid but less vigorous country western tunes.
“Friday Night Lights” may not be “Remember the Titans,” “Brian’s Song” or “Rudy”; by design it does not aim to be, but it deserves to be mentioned in any discussion about the best football films ever made.
Rated PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking