© 2004 Ray Wong
It’s difficult for a sports flick to transcend the Hollywood cliché of heroes and glory. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, a film about a West Texas high school football team, somehow manages to diverge from that cliché and deliver something more gritty and real.
The story follows football coach Gary Gaines (Thornton) as he takes his team, the Odessa-Permian Panthers, to the 1988 Texas state championship. Odessa, TX is a blue-collar town with an insatiable appetite for football and an unforgiving attitude toward losing. While real life might be bleak in this town, when the lights come on every Friday night, dreams become possible at the Permian High stadium.
Gaines is a no-nonsense, don’t-take-no-crap kind of a coach, but he has heart, and he treats his players with respect. Among these players are quarterback Mike Winchell (Black), running backs Don Billingsley (Hedlund) and Brian Chavez (Hernandez), and the superstar Boobie Miles (Luke). Winchell is a serious, taciturn loner whose sole responsibility of taking care of his mother has taken a toll on his outlooks in life. He can’t see the joy in playing football; instead, he sees it (and a scholarship) as his only ticket to escape the town and his misery. Billingsley tries too hard to impress his alcoholic father (McGraw), an ex-State champion who sees his own life dwindling away. Miles is hot-tempered and cocky, thinking that he’s God’s gift to the football world and that one day he’s going to make it big.
When Miles gets his knee busted, his hopes for superstardom vanishes together with Odessa’s hopes for an undefeated season and state championship. As the team begins to lose, Billingsley’s father becomes more and more violent. Winchell’s despair also deepens as his mother becomes sicker and his hopes of getting out diminish. But Gaines sees their potentials, and what they can accomplish if only they could see the perfection in themselves. “Being perfect is not about winning,” he says to the boys. “Being perfect is about giving your all, being able to look your family and loved ones in the eye and tell them there’s absolutely nothing more you could have done.”
Berg’s (WONDERLAND) direction is tense and personal. The hand-held camera shots do take some time getting used to, but they add to the film by giving it that gritty documentary feel. So does the washed-out look, which I think is beautiful and fitting for the film. The action on the field is rather standard, offering the usual excitement with close-ups, slow motion, and fast cutting. The rapid editing and short scenes, however, do add to the drama. I particularly like the editing – I really think it makes the film more intensely personal. The soundtrack is also very affecting.
There is no grand, complex plot, but each short scene reveals more of the characters in a nuanced way that makes for very compelling storytelling. You don’t get to come too close to the characters, but you care about them nonetheless. And they tug at the heartstring without being obnoxious about it. Little by little you get to know these characters and their situations, and you can’t help but feel attached to them. They feel real.
Thornton is low-key and very effective as Gaines. Every glance or twitch of the mouth reveals something personal and introspective about the character. There’s no overt acting here – you can tell that he’s totally immersed in this role. All of the largely unknown cast give admirable performances: Black (COLD MOUNTAIN) is strong but conflicted as Winchell. Luke (ANTWONE FISHER) is marvelous and heartbreaking as the loud-mouthed Miles. Hedlund (TROY) is not bad as the father’s boy, but he seems to be the weakest link in the cast. Country superstar McGraw is surprisingly good as Billingsley’s abusing father. His one soul-baring scene is heart wrenching to watch.
There’s nothing earth shattering in Cohen and Berg’s script (adapted from Bissinger’s best-selling non-fiction book). We have all the usual ingredients for a sports movie: underdogs with personal problems, abusive fathers, a tough-love coach, and impossible odds. What sets this film apart from, say, MIRACLE (with Kurt Russell), is that the story focuses more on the characters and their relationships with each other than the actual plays and wins. The ending is almost anti-sports movies – clearly it’s not about the destination, but the journey. There might not be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there is that rainbow, dammit. And that message is powerful.
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Tim McGraw, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Derek Luke, Jay Hernadez
Director: Peter Berg
Writers: David Aaron Cohen, Peter Berg (based on book by H.G. Bissinger)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language, alcohol, sexual content
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 9
Production – 8
Total Score – 7.9 out of 10