Friday Night Lights
directed by Peter Berg
(Universal, 2004)

A nearly new high school football coach expected to win the state championship suddenly finds himself facing an impossible task when he loses his star running back.

That's a pretty good hook for a piece of football fiction. It's an even better hook for a fact-based film like Friday Night Lights.

Friday Night Lights is about football but, more importantly, it's about football players -- and even more importantly, it's about Texas, a state where not much matters besides football.

It opens with a wide-angle shot of gray clouds moving over a stark landscape bisected by a long straight road -- a sight familiar to anyone who's spent time in west Texas. It climaxes at the Astrodome, where Odessa Permian met Dallas Carter for the 1988 state championship in a face-off that put most Super Bowls to shame.

How Odessa got there without the aid of star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) provides the surface story of Friday Night Lights. How Boobie and his teammates and his coach survive in a town that puts football ahead of God and the Constitution is the more intriguing understory, the dark side of Lights.

The film focuses on three players in particular, Boobie, a young black man raised by his beloved Uncle L.V. (Grover Coulson); Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), son of local football legend Charlie Billingsley (country singer Tim McGraw -- relax, he doesn't sing); and Mike Winchell, son of a woman (Connie Cooper) the whole town thinks is crazy, though given the behavior of the so-called sane members of Odessa, it's clearly a judgment call.

Each player has his own burden. Boobie's halting efforts to come to grips with his injury may be the most moving, especially when the young stud, who's never lacked for self-confidence, can only break down and cry that football is the only thing he knows.

What's left in life? Watching him sit on the porch watching the trash collectors at work on his street tells us more than we ever wanted to know.

Don, on the other hand, must deal with a father who literally walks onto the field and smacks him around for dropping a ball in practice -- a behavior so bizarre it would seem unbelievable anywhere but in the Odessa file. And wait until you see what the old man does with his championship ring.

But Mike's story is perhaps the most fetching of all, if only because so much of his concern is for another human being, his mother -- a quality that seems lost in a town that asks its coach to "Protect this team, this school, this town."

So ultimately, Friday Night Lights asks two questions: "Is there life without football?" and "Is there life with football?"

The man who has to answer those questions, of course, is coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), the object of much of the town's attention and abuse, especially from talk-radio football fans, and the recipient of more advice in one day, especially from team parents and boosters, than any one person could use in six lifetimes. Witness the town's response when his team loses a game. It's as funny as it is sickening.

So how does it all work out? Uncomfortably, unfortunately.

Friday Night Lights gets off to a great start, with lots of on- and off-field shots that reveal both the intensity of the game and the struggles facing the 17-year-olds who are being told everything but "win or don't come home," even though most know they'll never get out of Odessa. And Thornton brings all his intelligence, insight and articulateness to bear in bringing Gaines to the screen.

But director Peter Berg has to move quickly once the season starts to assure ample time for the championship game, and that means plowing rather swiftly through four months of football while watching four key characters try to exorcise their demons.

The result is that a film that initially goes for unexpected depth suddenly finds itself skimming multiple surfaces. And in the end, it's not clear Gaines' response to the two key questions is going to make life any better for the next generation of stars to face the Odessa football fog of war.

Friday Night Lights has its moments, and it raises serious questions in a way few sports films do. But does it add up to a Radio or Remember the Titans? Sadly, the lights go out too soon.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 2 April 2005

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