Friday Night Lights (2004) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language, sexual content, teen drinking, and some violence
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Jay Hernandez, Lee Jackson, Lee Thompson Young, Tim McGraw, Grover Coulson, Connie Britton
Director: Peter Berg
Screenplay: David Aaron Cohen, Peter Berg
Review published October 14, 2004
Perhaps if I hadnít seen the documentary Go Tigers!, with its real-life portrayal of the fanaticism that has overtaken a small town in their high school football frenzy, I would have thought that many of the cult-like activities that go on in Friday Night Lights were overstated by quite a bit. The location depicted here is Odessa, Texas, where a poor town has given birth to the most successful football program in the state, the Permian Panthers. Everyone expects the team to dominate, year in and year out, and in this year, 1988, the town even expects the team to go undefeated.
Based on a true story adapted from H.G. Bissingerís book, ďFriday Night Lights: A Town, A Dream and a TeamĒ, director and co-screenwriter Peter Berg (Very Bad Things, The Rundown) uses shaky camera work to give the effect of realism, mixed with a stylized delivery of high school football action that takes this simple small-town story and makes it feel important, like Hoosiers for football fans. Itís an underdog story, so the team is shown as too small and too overcome with calamity to make it. Of course, they do have their successes, or this would be a very unimportant film. Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa, Bandits) plays the coach dealing with the adversity of leading a team where the parents are always meddling and the townsfolk always giving their advice on how to run the team. Meanwhile, their undersized team must carry the load on their superstar running back (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher), but they know that one serious injury would set the team back severely.
Friday Night Lights has its moments, definitely enough to recommend for those into sports films or just interesting dramas, but I do have some problems with the way it is presented. First, the dramatic elements are well made, with some very good performances (particularly by Luke and a very menacing portrayal of a meddling father by country star, Tim McGraw), but all too often things veer into schmaltzy melodrama. The other major issue is that the scenes on the field, while they are very well-shot and put together, just donít feel like high school football, or even professional football for that matter. Every tackle is a body slam, every pass completed a feat of incredible athleticism, and momentum shifts in the game such that one team always dominates whenever the story necessitates it. Is this high school football or pro wrestling in cleats? (The short-lived XFL wasnít nearly this violent.)
Still, itís an engaging sports film, and definitely should be seen by football fans in particular for the look at the game and what it means to small-town America. Iíve heard the book is richer and more in-depth, considered one of the best sports stories ever written, so you may also want to put that on your must-read list if you like what you see here.
©2004 Vince Leo