In Texas, there is only one sport that seems to matter, football. And if you’re an athletically gifted male in a Texas high school, I imagine you will play football, whether you enjoy the game or not. At least that is the impression Friday Night Lights leaves.
Right from the start, the film makes it clear that high school football in the small town of Odessa, Texas is bigger than life. Heroic images of young men making their way to the field for the first day of practice fill the screen. The sounds are of talk show callers rattling on about all things Panthers football. Some might think it’s a bit over the top except this is a film based on H.G. Bissinger’s non-fiction book about the 1988 Permian High School football team.
While the music and cinematography of play on the field tend to glamorize the game, coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) subtlety makes his way through a minefield of rabid fans who control the fate of his career. Thornton does not play coach Gaines like Al Pacino does in Any Given Sunday – over the top and then some. Instead, we get glimpses of coach Gaines as one who is just as in awe as we the viewers are of the overly passionate adults who live and die by the play of their local high school football team. He can be as intense as any coach on the field, sometimes caving into the pressures he can’t help but feel as every moment of the fall season is filled with expectations of winning the state football championship.
The parents or guardians of the players we get to spend any time with are dysfunctional. A father who lives in the past through his son and leads to constant abuse as a result. A mother in poverty who is incapable of caring for her son. All her hopes are in the son getting a scholarship to college. An uncle who plays the role of part guardian, part Don King to his nephew, the superstar of the team. And while we see dysfunction abounding in these relationships in addition to the misplaced heightened importance of football across the town, the film never gets quite close enough to any of the people. It’s almost as if the director, Peter Berg, is satisfied with giving us a glimpse at the personal. His focus seems to be more on capturing the feeling of being wrapped up in this alternate world where a loss by the local high school football team means people post “for sale” signs in front of the coach’s home. And Berg does an excellent job of that. The music, the cinematography and overall tone of the film never let you forget just how insanely important every moment, big or small, is in the high stakes game of Texas high school football. It would have been even better if we got to know some of these characters a bit more. The dialogue is sparse throughout the film, minus typical locker room speeches. It grows even sparser in the second half, where it seems we’re watching a music video as much as a movie about real people.
Friday Night Lights fails at telling a complete story with characters we can connect with at a deeper level but succeeds in capturing the insanity that can be sports. In that way it’s a rare sports movie. A pleasant surprise.