Movie Review

 

Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights

Production Company: Universal
Director: Peter Berg
Principles: Billy Bob Thornton, Tim McGraw, Derek Luke, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund
Rating: PG-13 for sexual situations, underage drinking and rough football action

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- The gladiators suit up. They bless their cause with prayer and noble words. Up rises the coliseum, the site of the coming contest. Ahead lies glory or absolute defeat. There is nothing in between. Is this Troy or ancient Rome?    

Friday Night Lights photo
Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) motivates his team in the locker room before a game. Photo © Copyright Universal Pictures
No, but it is West Texas. And these gladiators are high school football players – just boys. But if you think comparing them to gladiators in mortal combat is an exaggeration, then you don’t know Texas football. Luckily, Friday Night Lights is here to give you a front row seat on the 50-yard line and an unforgettable look at what it means to be 17 and know your whole life hinges on this one last season.

Based on H. G. Bissinger’s searing 1990 bestseller, Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the Odessa, Texas, Permian High School Panthers football team and their quest for the Texas State Championship. It’s often said that in Texas, high school football is a religion – and for some, it’s even more serious. Odessa is just such a place where fervor for the sport and high expectations for the team are a consuming passion. Stores close down on game night, and the team’s stars are revered as heroes, lavished with preferential treatment at school and throughout town.

Friday Night Lights photo
Charlie Billingsley (Tim McGraw) comforts his son, Don (Garrett Hedlund). Photo © Copyright Universal Pictures
But with this high expectation comes solemn responsibility and terrible pressure. Director Peter Berg’s film exquisitely paints a portrait of a town of football fans whose dreams and sense of purpose rest on the heavily padded shoulders of stoic boys and their even more stoic coach Gary Gains (Billy Bob Thornton). For the Panthers, four-time state champions in the past, winning is a tradition – and is expected. It’s so expected that after the season’s first loss, “For Sale” signs crop up in Gains’ yard, courtesy of his neighbors. Early in the film, a local fan tells the players it’s their responsibility to “protect this town.” As they nod in unison, we sense the gravity of this burden passed on from fathers to sons, from older brothers to younger brothers.  

The story focuses on three key players each with his own unique challenges to overcome. “Boobie” Miles (Derek Luke) is a brilliant running back who appears to be a shoo-in for the NFL, until an injury shatters his dreams. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is torn between his desire to escape Odessa and his obligation to stay and care for his mentally disturbed mother. But wide receiver Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is challenged the most. His abusive father, ferociously played by country music singer Tim McGraw, once played on a championship team himself and now berates and intimidates Don any time he falls short of that lofty yardstick. 

Friday Night Lights photo

Star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) and Miles' uncle, L.V. (Grover Coulson), discuss Boobie's return to the game. Photo © Copyright Universal Pictures

 

As the season wears on and they battle their way towards a possible championship, the strain begins to show, and at some level, they mourn their lost childhood. "Do you feel 17?" one senior asks a teammate, “‘cause I sure don't feel 17." The beauty of this film is that moments like this are played realistically, without the bravado that makes many other high school sports films ring false. 

Despite the pressures and disappointments experienced by the team, their story is uplifting.  It is Gains who helps them put it all in perspective. Before each game, he urges them to “Be perfect.” This seems like an impossible request, until we hear his inspirational pep talk before their game for the state championship. Being “perfect,” he explains, means you’ve done all you can and been the best teammate you can be. He explains you can’t control the hand life deals you, and you can’t always control the outcome of events, but you can control your effort. When they’ve given their all on the field, then – win or lose – they can look each other and everyone in Odessa in the eye and be proud.

The film is filled with meaningful messages about coping with loss and disappointment, obsession with winning and how hard it is to live up to the expectations of others. Most importantly the film explores the dangers of basing life on one transient thing, like high school football. I won’t tell you whether they won that big game, but I will tell you that – by their coach’s standards – they were perfect.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

This feature was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.



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