The people of Odessa, Texas, take high school football seriously, and “Friday Night Lights” treats it with just as much reverence. I saw the film in a theater full of high school football teams, and rather than being the rowdy, major league tools that football players usually are, they sat in respectful silence. I guess for them, this was like going to church.
I have no such veneration for football, but “Friday Night Lights” is a humdinger of a sports film, shot so it has the bleak, stark colors of a war movie, with gritty handheld camerawork to match. This is serious business, this high school football.
It’s based on the true story of Odessa’s 1988 Permian High School football season, as recounted in H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream.” The film, directed by Bissinger’s cousin Peter Berg and adapted by Berg and David Aaron Cohen, embraces wholeheartedly every sports-flick clichÃ©, from the paternal coach to the hotshot quarterback to the thrilling last-minute victories — but man, does it ever make them work. Berg stays true to the film’s real-life roots and recreates everything matter-of-factly. Scenes that would be awkwardly melodramatic in lesser films — a player learning his injuries will prevent him from ever taking the field again; a young man’s run-ins with his abusive father — are charged with emotion, but the emotion feels honest, rather than maudlin.
The coach is Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), worshipped by the town as long as the team is winning, which is has generally done in past years. The film begins with the pre-season drills and ends with the final championship game, and Gaines’ players are idolized by the small working-class town in between. This is a place where Friday nights find most local businesses closed with signs saying “Going to the game!” in the window. (If it seems strange that a town would focus this much on high school football, watch the documentary “Go Tigers!,” which tells of a Ohio town that puts Odessa to shame.)
Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) cares for his aged mother (Connie Cooper), suffering from the onset of dementia, and must deal with additional pressure when he becomes starting quarterback following a knee injury for hotshot Boobie Miles (Derek Luke). (Boobie believed himself to be indestructible, making his destruction both poetic and predictable, but his pain is no less heartrending to watch.) Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is a good player but not a great one, and this angers his alcoholic father (Tim McGraw — yes, Tim McGraw), who won a state championship playing for this same team and whose only passion now is to see his son relive his own glory days. Other players come in and out of focus, but it is those three — Mike, Boobie and Don — whose compelling stories are given the most attention.
Well, actually, what’s given the most attention is the team as a unit, and more particularly, football, every aspect of it. The final game occupies fully 25 minutes of screen time, awesomely staged and filmed with a you-are-there mentality. After some games, we see a weary Gaines driving home, listening to the armchair quarterbacking of the know-it-all fans who call into the AM radio sports stations. He particularly does this after his team has lost, a form of self-flagellation that is only one of many details that ring true in the screenplay and in Thornton’s down-to-earth performance.
I like that the film simply drops us into Odessa without explaining every little thing. We don’t know exactly what’s wrong with Mike’s mother, for example, or why they call Mr. Miles “Boobie,” or why the Permian Panthers’ nickname is “MoJo.” I’m sure all of this is common knowledge to the locals, but we’re outsiders here. “Friday Night Lights” tells an engrossing story with such conviction and honesty, embedded in a surplus of stylistic flourishes, that it becomes one of the best sports movies in recent memory.
A- (1 hr., 57 min.; )