out of Five
Running time: 117
Engaging, well-made, frequently moving drama that transcends its status as “just another football movie” thanks to a strong script and impressive performances from its young leads.
Unsurprisingly, the UK box office figures for American sports movies rarely reflect the degree of success that the same films enjoyed in the States. For a sports movie to do well it has to transcend its perceived status as “just another sports movie”.
Well-Made, Frequently Moving And Engaging
Fortunately, Friday Night Lights manages to do just that, it’s an extremely well-made, frequently moving drama with strong performances and an engaging script.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Gary Gaines, the football coach at Permian High School in Odessa, a dusty West Texas town. Just as with recent Samuel L. Jackson flick Coach Carter, the town love Gaines when the team wins and hate him when the team loses, to the point of covering his lawn with ‘For Sale’ signs.
As the story progresses, it gradually becomes clear that the real subject of the film is the huge pressures that the town puts on the shoulders of the young players.
Director Tim Berg does a good job of showing how the entire community invests its hopes, its dreams and its sense of pride in the fortunes of the team and this in itself is fascinating – most British people have a football-obsessed friend or two, but it’s hard to imagine an entire town full of them.
Berg also makes strong use of handheld cameras and bleached-out photography, which adds considerably to the washed-out atmosphere of the film.
The sharply observed script focuses on Gaines and three of his players:
“Boobie” Miles (Derek Luke), whose glittering future as the team’s star player is jeopardized by a serious knee injury; Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), the insecure quarterback with a sick mother to look after; and Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), a tailback with an unfortunate habit of fumbling the ball, who has to deal with the drunken, violent outbursts of his frustrated father (Tim McGraw) every time the team loses.
There’s also strong support from former linebacker Lee Jackson as man-of-few-words Ivory Christian and Jay Hernandez (yet again missing out on a sub-plot of his own) as brainy student Brian Chavez.
Berg Coaxes Best From Actors
Director Berg is a sometime actor, so it’s unsurprising that he gets such great performances from his entire cast. Thornton anchors the film with his understated but no less effective performance but the stand-out is Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) – the scene where he finally realises that his football career is over is truly heartbreaking to watch.
If there’s a drawback to the film, it’s only that the extended, nail-biting game sequence takes a passing knowledge of American football for granted – in one particular scene it’s only the soundtrack that clues you in as to whether they’ve won or lost.
In short, Friday Night Lights is a well made, impressively acted, engaging story that’s about a lot more than “just” football. Worth taking a punt on, or some other rubbish sport-related phrase. In other words: recommended.