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Paul Greenwood

Published May 13th, 2005 | by Paul Greenwood

Friday Night Lights Review

Classification: 12A Director: Peter Berg Rating: 4/5

Those of you who are fearful that a lack of understanding of American football may be detrimental to your enjoyment of Friday Night Lights should rest easy. My knowledge of the sport is limited to there being a guy who throws the ball and some guys who try to catch the ball, while everyone else runs head first into each other for various unexplained purposes. Admittedly, this does have the effect of rendering the coaching scenes about as instructive as if they were being spoken in Klingon – I swear I heard one exchange along the lines of “Jack, you switch the cheese grater with the ironing board and Steve, you double shuffle the kangaroo down the line for the mailbox.”

But this doesn’t matter a jot, firstly because, when the lights go on and the action starts, sheer exhilaration takes precedence over comprehension. Secondly, and more importantly, the film isn’t really about football at all. Based on a true story, Friday Night Lights takes place in the small Texas town of Odessa in 1988, as the Permian High “Panthers” strive to win the state championship. Under the tutelage of Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), we follow the team of 17 year olds through the ups and downs of a season.

It’s almost half an hour before a ball is thrown in anger, but this is time well used as we get to meet and understand these boys and the pressure they are under from all sides – their families, their school, the entire town. Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is the first choice quarterback, upon whose throwing arm the hopes and dreams of the team and the community rest. He is serious and dedicated, his sick mother drilling him on tactics during meals. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is the ball-catching-guy, the local celebrity and star attraction. But he’s arrogant and undisciplined, slacking off on training because he believes he’s already good enough. Then there’s Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), living in the shadow of his domineering, former championship winning father (Tim McGraw), so much so that anything he does on the field is never good enough, and is liable to earn him a tirade of verbal abuse and humiliation.

Come match night and the whole of Odessa is out for the game and, as shops and businesses close and “Gone to the game” signs spring up all over town, the coach and the players are left in little doubt what is required of them over the course of the season. But disaster strikes during the first game, as Boobie sustains damage to his knee that could see him out of action for a long time. As he struggles to come to terms with the severity of the injury and his team have to face tremendous obstacles, both on and off the field, a long hard autumn awaits.

Although it presents a scenario that’s been played out on film countless times before, Friday Night Lights is thoroughly riveting and surprisingly emotional. The in-game sequences are excitingly staged (footage of real Permian matches is interspersed with mocked up play) and the euphoria of a touchdown is palpable, but it’s the aftermath of the games and the consequences of victory or loss that hold the true resonance. For the townsfolk of Odessa, pinning their hopes on the success of the Panthers may be a way to deflect from their own unfulfilled lives, but for Gaines and his team it’s about so much more than winning a game of football. It’s about brotherhood, it’s about character, it’s about honour, it’s not about pandering to the broken dreams and regrets of a bunch of rednecks.

Coach Gaines, of all the main characters, is probably the one we get to spend the least time with away from the field of play, but he is the heart and soul of Permian and the heart and soul of the movie. When he entreats his players to “be perfect”, it’s as moving as any eulogy and as stirring as any war-cry. Thornton may not have been the obvious choice for such an unassuming role, but he’s truly wonderful, tender and fatherly but steely when he needs to be. The other main players are equally well cast – Thornton’s Sling Blade co-star Lucas Black gets his first decent major part and doesn’t disappoint, while country music star Tim McGraw is a revelation as the embittered Billingsley Snr. A word of praise too for the stark washed out cinematography – a thing of beauty that paints the flatlands of West Texas as a vast alien tundra, as empty and desolate as the lives of its inhabitants.

So enjoy Friday Night Lights, just don’t expect to understand it.


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