Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tonight's Movie: Friday Night Lights (2004)

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a gritty, semi-documentary look at high school football in small-town Texas.

There is huge pressure on Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) to deliver the state football championship. Permian High School is located in Odessa, a dusty, working-class town where the high school team's Friday night games provide most of the excitement. Odessa's citizens constantly offer unsolicited advice to Gaines and make their expectations of a championship clear. Gaines handles the pressure with equanimity; although he can be loud on the football field, otherwise he is a calm, quiet man who has the respect of his players and the love and support of his wife (Connie Britton).

Permian's team includes quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), whose mother is chronically ill; Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), whose abusive father (played by country singer Tim McGraw) is trying to relive his football glory days through his son; cocky Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), who expects a college scholarship; and quiet leaders Brian Chavez and Ivory Christian (Jay Hernandez, Lee Jackson). The players' often rocky family situations add an additional layer of stress to their lives on top of the pressure to succeed in football, but at the same time football provides an outlet, a place to belong, and a supportive adult authority figure in Coach Gaines.

The film is quite good. At times it's stirring, at other moments a bit disturbing, with an unpredictable ending. Thornton, always an interesting actor, is excellent in the lead role, although I had the sense that the film's semi-documentary style kept viewers at a bit of a distance from really knowing his character. The actors playing the players are all believable; I thought Black was particularly good as the stressed-out quarterback. The film, shot on location in Texas, has a unique, realistic style; one can almost smell the dust just looking at the screen. The movie's setting is reminiscent of another high school sports film set in Texas, THE ROOKIE.

The movie was directed by Peter Berg, who also cowrote the screenplay, and Josh Pate. It runs 118 minutes.

For trivia fans, IMDb has an interesting list of the movie's anachronisms and continuity bloopers.

Parental advisory: the movie is rated PG-13 for language and a brief scene in which two teenagers have obviously engaged in, ahem, inappropriate conduct. On the flip side, positives in the film include the depiction of a supportive marriage, teenagers learning valuable life lessons about responsibility and friendship, and the inclusion of religion in everyday life (each of the teams competing at the state finals is seen reciting the Lord's Prayer together).

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is available on DVD and video.

Incidentally, the DVD set for the second season of the highly regarded TV series based on the movie will be released on April 22, 2008. The show had filmed many more episodes before the strike than other series and decided to call it a season once the strike ended.

Good news for fans of the TV series is that it looks like despite tough odds the show has been renewed for a third season. The show may be saved by a partnership of DirecTV and NBC, in which DirecTV would pay half the production costs in return for the right to air the show on a special DirecTV channel before the episodes are shown on NBC.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that in the film the coach and his wife are called Gary and Sharon Gaines, while in the TV series the characters are named Eric and Tami Taylor. In each case, however, the wife is effectively played by Connie Britton. As fans know, Coach Taylor is played by the terrific Kyle Chandler.


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