Film — Friday Night Lights (PG-13)
Friday Night Lights (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

Texans love their high school football more than New Englanders love their Red Sox in the movie Friday Night Lights.

That’s right, you heard me. More.

It’s 1988 and the Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas, have a promising team. So promising that the entire town of Odessa not only expects but demands an undefeated run ending in a state championship. What with the limits of his control over time and space, this makes the season a tense time for Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), both on field and off. (From dinner parties to parking lots, Gaines is forever subjected to advice and polite threats.)

His players, though only 17, have as their task protecting the town, as he tells them. From what? From the forces beyond everyone’s control that could—from injury, bad luck or lack of skill—lead to a loss of the extra shine, the deep hometown pride that comes from a victorious season. These are the same forces, after all, that keep most of the people from Odessa in Odessa—working-small town jobs, leading small-town lives. The high school girls, perhaps sensing this is it for them, pursue the football players just so they can say they slept with a player. The players’ parents see their sons’ football careers as either a vicarious extension of their own youth or as their sons’ only way to a better life. For the players themselves, especially the high school seniors, this season is, they all seem to know, quite possibly all they will have to distinguish themselves. (After that, “it’s all babies and memories,” according to a man who’s likely no more than five years older than these young men.)

The season kicks off with a win but also with a minor disaster—star player Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is injured. For Boobie, his entire future rides on his football prowess and he refuses to believe that anything will get in the way of that. 

For Gaines, Boobie’s injury throws a shadow on the whole season. Enduring flack from the fans, Gaines must convince the team that even minus Boobie they can still win. While some players, such as Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) have other ways to college and a solid career, others, like son-of-a-star Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) are so paralyzed with fear that they begin to jinx themselves.

For all that it is a good football movie, showing the effort and sacrifice that players put into their games, Friday Night Lights is really more about small-town, working-class life. Most of the Panthers did not come from money. For them, college was an unlikely dream. To get the education that could push them a few rungs up the economic ladder, they would have to hit the lottery—literally or figuratively, though the access-granting power of sports. When Boobie Miles believes his game is over, he cries bitterly to the uncle who had helped him achieve his position. What will I do if I can’t play football, he sobs. It’s startling to think that, in many ways, this 17-year-old boy believes his life is over.

The movie also does a good job of showing us the inner workings of Gaines’ head. He loves the game of football, loves it in a way that surpasses the football fever of his neighbors. He wants his boys to play their best game, even if it doesn’t end up being their winning game. While keeping expectations high, he has to keep his tightly wound team from cracking under the pressure of the rest of Odessa.

Thornton plays Gaines with a fitting quietness. It is in many ways a standard Thornton performance and yet it is one that perfectly fits his coach under siege.

Yes, Friday Night Lights gives us the obligatory big game, but the movie ends with a surprising burst of realism as subtitles explain what happens to the players after the last touchdown.

Showing at: Cinemagic, Flagship Cinemas

- Amy Diaz 

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