Big `Lights' in a small town

`Friday Night Lights' makes some good plays, fumbles its social point


October 08, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The problem with Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg's big-screen adaptation of his cousin Buzz Bissinger's expose of small-town Texas football, is that it's too much about the game and not enough about the town, the players and everything else.

Bissinger's book was pretty darn scathing, bad enough to get him effectively banned from revisiting the town in which it was set, Odessa, Texas. Berg's film may get him invited back, for while the townies are hardly portrayed as saints, they come across as far more sympathetic than perhaps they deserve.

And the movie absolutely fumbles the issue of race, a fundamental and pervasive theme of the book that's virtually ignored until the final confrontation between a school of mixed racial population (the film's heroes) and one that is predominantly black (depicted as the clear bad guys). While the virtuous Odessa Permian Panthers play clean, by-the-book football, the much bigger Dallas Carter Cowboys play mean and dirty.

That contrast may have been true, but I doubt it; few high-school football teams are made up of altar boys. But it should have been handled far better here; either that, or ignored completely. To introduce a racial element at the last minute as a means of ratcheting up the tension is weak storytelling that serves neither the drama nor the reality, certainly not the very divisive issues Friday Night Lights should be facing square on.

The movie follows the Panthers' 1988 season. In Odessa, a little town that's about as low on the economic and social totem pole as a town can go, the Panthers are everything. Radio DJs are always talking about them, the teenagers who play on the team are town heroes.

When the Panthers play, store owners stick a "Gone to the Game" sign in the window and head to the school's 20,000-seat stadium, rising out of the scarred, impoverished landscape like a neon light in the desert.

The script, by Berg and David Aaron Cohen, focuses on three players. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is a hotshot running back of unlimited talent and unquenchable ego. He's good, and knows it, but eventually the team pays a horrible price for his braggadocio.

Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is the quarterback, and he's staring down all sorts of demons, including his own insecurities about his talent, his mother's mental instability and determination that he succeed at whatever cost, and his own desperate need to escape this dying town.

Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is a less-than-sure-handed receiver who's regularly beaten by his drunken father (Tim McGraw), a former Panther himself.

Guiding these kids through their season is coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), a proven winner who usually - though not always - keeps things in perspective. That's no small trick, given that everyone in town wants his head on a plate whenever the team loses.

To be fair, what Friday Night Lights does well, it does very well. The pressure brought to bear on these kids is stifling, not to mention unfair and frequently counter-productive; no teen should be asked to shoulder this kind of burden. And yet, when an entire town has nothing else to root for, perhaps even to live for, what's the alternative? In Odessa, there are no heroes, only victims.

The acting is superb throughout; Thornton, especially, shows everything that's good and bad about being a Panther; he's a true believer, but one who hasn't left his common sense and understanding of reality behind. Thornton walks a fine tightrope, playing both hero and mentor to these young men, while shouldering the dreams of an entire town. Tobias A. Schliessler's digital cinematography of the football games is bone-crunching to the extreme, but the effect wears thin after a while; when every hit sounds like Ray Lewis running headlong into an oak tree, they soon stop sounding impressive and just become loud.

Had Friday Night Lights stuck to what it does so well, it would have been an exciting morality play about the cost of investing a society's dreams on its younger citizens, as well as a football film that understands the gritty, violent appeal of the game. But by waiting so long to play the race card, then botching the play so badly, it becomes a failed exercise in sociology that skirts one of the main issues it should be addressing.

Friday Night Lights

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Lucas Black

Directed by Peter Berg

Rated PG-13 (sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action)

Released by Universal Pictures

Time 117 minutes

Sun Score**

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