Midway through “Friday Night Lights”, worn out Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) tells his struggling quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) that there hasn’t been much difference in the way he feels lately, no matter whether he’s just won or lost a game. It’s the defining moment of the film, and it sets a surprisingly sober tone for a high school football movie.
But then again, this is not a story about winning the “big game.” Writer/director Peter Berg had the daunting task of adapting a sprawling best-selling book by H.G. Bissinger about one particularly memorable season of the Permian Panthers from Odessa, Texas. What he’s put on the screen is an unusually dark and serious examination of the intense pressure put on teenagers in a poor town.
And what remains from the book in Berg’s script is still somewhat of a challenge to piece together convincingly, and he does so—mostly.
“Friday Night Lights” juggles five or six major characters with varying degrees of success and obviousness, and yet never truly gets a firm grasp on Coach Gaines. We get a little bit closer with Winchell, whose own self-doubt threatens to paralyze him with fear. But we don’t get anywhere with his mother (Connie Cooper), who, it is explained, simply “isn’t right in the head.”
Although the subplots are familiar, they are handled with the utmost seriousness. There is not a lot of laughs for these students. Your senior year is supposed to be the “time of your life”. Well, it probably still was for these kids, but not the way you’d expect it. The players in “Friday Night Lights” are forced to grow up real fast. Not only do they have to live up to the expectations of parents and a victory-obsessed community, but their peers at school all want to share in the team’s inevitable success. When the popular “loose” girl at school makes it with Winchell, there’s no triumphant hand-slapping with his friends. Rather, she quickly puts her clothes back on, kisses him, and leaves the used and bewildered kid sitting alone on the bed.
During the first practice scene, we are introduced to Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), whose alcoholic ex-State Champion father (country singer Tim McGraw) lives vicariously through his son. Both actors are good in their roles, but it’s a shame that their story arc is mapped out from the beginning. “Boobie” Miles (Derek Luke) and his uncle L.V. (Grover Coulson) tread similar water plot-wise, and like Hedlund and McGraw, both actors show a genuine bond that elevates their story.
Where Berg goes right with “Friday Night Lights” is with his approach to the material. A high contrast, washed-out look permeates the movie, and he paints Odessa as an economically depressed nowhere town. Lots of hand-held camerawork and the frequent use of close-ups help to zero in and magnify the inner turmoil felt by teenagers who are supposed to be worrying about grades and getting laid. Instead, there aren’t much laughs or good times for these players, and the cinematography maintains the film’s gritty feel.
Coach Gaines is a pretty ordinary guy, and Thornton’s subtle performance renders the actor barely recognizable. By casting virtual unknown actors as the football players, Berg’s static shots are augmented by a sense of realism that would be a lot harder to achieve with noticeable stars. Rather than showcasing the usual rah-rah,“Go Team”, aggressive, Kid Rock-“upchuck the boogie”-style Ford tough, football-crunching hit rock music, Berg uses a more introspective soundtrack featuring plaintive indie rock noodling from Explosions in the Sky. It is a bold move, and it gives some of the football scenes an oddly contemplative mood. All of this suggests that Berg knew the pitfalls inherent in the script and came at “Friday Night Lights” like it was an independent film.
Late in the film in a rare moment of clarity, Mr. Billingsley lets his son in on a little secret. He says “You’ve got one season to make the memories that’ll stick with you for the rest of your life.” That’s a lot to think about for a seventeen year-old kid.
The inherent racism of the town is never really addressed until a very clumsy scene toward the end. Many deficient elements of the story are glossed over and some are made better through the film’s approach. And, although the football sequences are a bit hyped up for high school standards, they stand on their own as well. If there’s one thing that’s really impressive about “Friday Night Lights”, it is the convincing and scary portrait of a town whose every hope and dream rests with one Coach and a group of young men.