From the first rib-cracking hit to the last ligament-tearing tackle, the football players in Friday Night Lights hit harder than the storytelling, leaving just enough for non-sports fans to eke out some enjoyment. So many sports movies play out the same way as this one: The underdogs have adversity to overcome in order to come out on top — a shocking premise.
Based on the best seller by H.G. Bissinger, the film follows the 1988 Permian High Panthers of Odessa, Texas. Back then, rap was young, rock was hard, and acid-washed denim and curly fountains of bangs were in. And in the tiny west Texas town of Odessa, everybody expected the Panthers to bring home another state championship.
Though somewhat boilerplate, in Lights the camera is brought down to turf level and into the middle of painful hits and disappointing fumbles. The film adopts the unsteady, documentary-style, handheld look that has become the formula for handling any sort of action these days, but here it justifiably gives the game its proper grittiness. What these boys do on the field doesn’t look pretty — mostly it looks like it hurts.
Off the field, the teens deal with typical athletic stresses: Overbearing parents, temptations to party, uncertainty about life after graduation, etc. They also face overwhelming pressure to win from townfolk and families alike. Director Peter Berg, who co-wrote the screenplay, keeps a safe distance from rougher issues, barely grazing racism, educational concerns or demands to play while injured. After all, this is a football movie, not to be weighed down by examinations of social issues.
On the other hand, Berg’s depiction of the Panther’s sensitive but tough coach, played well by Billy Bob Thornton, is more compelling. The film would have benefited from more of Thornton as coach dealing with the team and the demands of his job outside of practice.
Thornton is fun to watch under the lights, as he rallies his team through the season. As ridiculous and over-the-top as the town’s football obsession might be, you can’t help but cheer on their Panthers.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].