Friday Night Lights

Accessibly sporty coming of age drama.

Released in 2004, certified UK-12. Reviewed on 23 May 2005 by Scott Morris
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I must warn you, this film does feature American Football quite heavily. As the barely noticeable NFL Europe showed, the sport so beloved of those damn Yankees doesn't play quite so well outside of U.S. territory. This shouldn't stop you extracting a goodly amount of enjoyment from this coming of age sporting drama, as it's actually rather good.

Smalltown, Texas seems a grim place to spend your formative years. Reliance on the surrounding oilfields makes many of them feel like remote outposts far from the glittering lights of the capitals. Distractions are needed and for Permian, the Smalltown that's the subject of this based-on-a-true-story that's high school U.S. football. The kind that you don't play with your feet.

Expectations for the Permian Panthers run high, with versatile superstar James 'Boobie' Miles (Derek Luke, sadly no explanation is forthcoming for his nickname) threatening to win the state championships on his own. That is, until he's judiciously flattened by an opposing team in a pre-season game suffering major ligament damage. Suddenly Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton)'s main tactic of 'get ball to Boobie' doesn't seem like such a great plan. With opinions on the phone-in shows turning sour at a rate of knots, Gaines has to instill enough confidence in the remaining team deprived of their star player to give them a fighting chance of making the finals.

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Of course, they've all got their own problems. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) has an ill mother to care for, and at times it seems like his supposedly glorious position in the team isn't worth the hassle. Running Back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is afflicted with a nightmare of a father (Tim McGraw), a previous state champion winner who's heaping expectations on his kid, and also the odd beating.

Pathos agogo. As coming-of-age dramas go, which is primarily the point of Friday Night Lights, there's few finer examples. Thornton's understated performance provides a welcome stability compared to the hormone addled mood swings of the troubled leads, who in turn play their emotions with an intensity that's entirely warranted and often touching.

You can't really separate it from the action on the field, that being the rest of the point. Thankfully, this is good American football. If you're anything like me, and if you are you have my commiserations, you first experienced the sport through Channel 4's highlight shows where they'd thankfully excised all the boring, inconsequential drives and much of the between-down setups and timewasting. This proved to be a winning formula, providing exciting end-to-end match-ups. Once Channel 5 bought the rights and relied on showing live games, interest levels went south rapidly. Hours and hours of very little happening? It's like watching The Phantom Menace.

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To cut short this rambling side story, the point I'm limping towards is that you don't need to know anything about American football to understand what's going on in Friday Night Lights, and some clever explanation by the featured game announcers should keep even the most clueless clued up. Even if you can't stand the game there's a good chance you might find yourself excited by the action here, as Welcome to the Jungle director Peter Berg takes the Channel 4 route and not only shows just the dramatic plays, but has license to use the best angles to capture it. It's quite an impressive showing from the man behind the megaphone, as capturing this combination of action and borderline melodrama is quite a tricky tightrope to walk, but he's negotiated it admirably.

Best supporting act in this film goes to the town of Permian itself, or it's cinematic stand-in. In a town where everyone knows everyone's business and football is next to godliness, it's not difficult to feel the walls closing in on the characters featured here. It had the horrible ambience of a town where everyone wants out but with no means to do so, where lives can feel wasted if people's priorities get knocked out of line. Perhaps Friday Night Lights best trick is to tap into this feeling of hopelessness before showing the ways out without descending into cornball sentimentality. At least, not too badly.

All told, Friday Night Lights is really rather good. By it's nature it's quite a masculine film, and if you want a fun game for all the family you could try the difficult 'spot the significant female presence' game. However, even if you hate American football and, erm, are female there's still an easily accessible relationship drama and character study underneath the odd spots of macho posturing. I'm quite fond of this film, and I'm fairly sure you will be too.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Peter Berg
Cast list:
Billy Bob Thornton (Coach Gary Gaines)
Lucas Black (Mike Winchell)
Garrett Hedlund (Don Billingsley)
Derek Luke (Boobie Miles)
Jay Hernandez (Brian Chavez)
Lee Jackson (Ivory Christian)
Lee Thompson Young (Chris Comer)
Tim McGraw (Charles Billingsley)