Hollywood makes some plays but isn't grounded in reality with `Friday Night Lights'

On High Schools

High Schools

October 08, 2004|By MILTON KENT

IN 32 YEARS as a high school football coach, Wilde Lake's Doug DuVall has been around long enough to know what's good and what's bad, what's real and what's fake about athletics at this level.

As he watched a screening of Friday Night Lights, the film opening today that chronicles a season in the life of a Texas high school football team, DuVall saw enough to know that the team and situations portrayed in the film are a long way from the world he knows and loves.

"It was a good movie," said DuVall. "It's the thrill of playing the one-time run through high school football. Certainly, it's a lot different in Texas than it is in the state of Maryland. We're somewhere between there and the igloo."

The "igloo" reference is to a line in the film in which Sharon Gaines, the wife of coach Gary Gaines, tells her husband that he could always coach football in Alaska and they could live in igloos if things didn't work out.

The movie, based on H.G. Bissinger's best-selling book about the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, in West Texas, will appeal to every high school football player who sees it.

Indeed, DuVall's Wildecats whooped and hollered through the football scenes, though one of them yelled, "Don't get no ideas, Coach" during a depiction of the "Oklahoma drill," in which players essentially take on their teammates one at a time.

What will, or perhaps, should frighten every parent, teacher and administrator who sees Friday Night Lights is the near total absence of perspective of nearly every adult character in the movie.

For instance, in one scene, a group of boosters approaches the coach to suggest what and whom he should play. Throughout the season, Coach Gaines' moves are scrutinized on local talk radio, with one caller saying that the Panthers are struggling because there's "too much learnin' in the school."

Country singer Tim McGraw, in his first movie role, plays a former Permian star who is now the parent of a running back who has a hard time holding onto the ball. McGraw's character, a lout if ever there was one, strolls onto the field on the first day of practice to humiliate his fumble-prone son

The most frightening scene comes after a loss when Gaines arrives home and finds a bunch of "House for Sale" signs on his lawn, the oh-so-clear impression being that he has worn out his welcome.

"I've been offered jobs like that and I'm not interested in doing that," said DuVall. "I like what we do. I think the kids understand the whole perspective, how important the game is. At the same time, they realize that it is just a game."

You know things are weird when Billy Bob Thornton, Mr. Sling Blade himself, is the sensible center of the movie as Gaines. Maybe Texas high school football is that psychotic, but there should have been some balance.

There are, to be fair, other fine performances, particularly from the younger actors.

Derek Luke, for instance, who plays the title character in the film Antwone Fisher, is exceptional as Boobie Miles, the star running back who has to cope with the aftermath of a debilitating injury. Lucas Black and Garrett Hedlung are terrific, too, as the quarterback and running back with their own demons to overcome.

It's cliche to say that a movie adapted from a book isn't as good as the print version. In this case, however, director Peter Berg, a second cousin of Bissinger's, hasn't done his relative many favors with a movie that, at times, is so over the top as to be laughable.

The action scenes are so cartoonishly violent as to be unbelievable, or does every play in a football game end in a garish, noisy collision? And there won't be a soul in the theater who won't be able to see the ending coming from 50 yards away.

At some point, football will get the kind of realistic, contemporary cinematic treatment that basketball got with Hoosiers, or that baseball received with Field of Dreams. Friday Night Lights makes a few first downs, but just doesn't score often enough.

"I think we really need a great football story in high school, a great high school story that portrays it for what it really is," said DuVall. "Parts of it [the movie] ... portrays it for what it is, but there are other parts of it, where in the rest of the world, it's not like that. There's a lot of just great stuff that takes place."

Too bad a lot of that isn't shown in Friday Night Lights.

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