Droid defines the decades best movies – #20 Friday Night Lights (2004)
America is the only nation I can think of where common teenage high school kids are placed in sporting programs en mass, come under extraordinary pressure to perform, and are called failures if they don’t succeed. Sure, this is not exclusive to America, but rarely are those kids considered failures, and told their future is ruined, if they don’t achieve this success in non-academic activities. ‘Friday Night Lights’ is about that pressure. It comes from coaches, family, students, media and even strangers. These kids are under the microscope, every success celebrated, every failure criticized.
Based on the non-fiction book written by H. G. Bissinger, FNL is the story of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas. Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is set for the new season. He’s got a solid team and has designed all of his offensive plays around star player Boobie Miles (Derek Luke). With Boobie on the team, expectations are for an undefeated season and a state championship. But when Miles injures his ACL early in the season, Coach Gaines must contend with the mounting pressure to find a way for the Panthers to win.
“Gentlemen, the hopes and dreams of an entire town are riding on your shoulders. You may never matter again in your life as much as you do right now.”
Remember, these aren’t adults and this isn’t pro football. That’s some pretty big pressure for a seventeen year old, and along with each players personal problems, you feel an empathy towards them that transcends this story into one a little bit deeper and more involving than the average sports movie.
Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) doesn’t really love playing. He’s doing it more out of obligation to gain a scholarship and hopefully make it out of Odessa. Fullback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) has to contend with his overbearing father, a high school star that never moved on, while Safety Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) doesn’t need to rely on football to guarantee his future as he is academically adept. We follow these three as they navigate being local celebrities, the pressure of winning games and the uncertainty of their future.
Lucas Black is a terrific actor. I remember seeing him about fifteen years ago as a little kid in ‘The War’ and then as Billy Bob’s friend in ‘Sling Blade’, and thought to myself that he will be one to watch. Since then he’s put in some fine performances, mostly in supporting roles. Here he plays a quiet, serious character and shows subtle depth and emotion. It’s a good performance. Also very effective is country singer Tim McGraw as Don’s drunken and abusive father. The character could’ve played out as a simple villain, but is given time to develop and when you see just how much he’s living in the past, your hate for the character shifts to pity. The guys a loser, who can’t get passed that one year of his life where he was a winner. Billy Bob is good as well, but the focus of the story are the kids, and that’s where your sympathy lies.
This is, by far, Peter Berg’s best film. That’s not saying much because both ‘Hancock’ and ‘The Kingdom’ were average, ‘The Rundown’ was fun, and ‘Very Bad Things’ was hateful garbage. FNL is in another league. Being based on a true story is important to the impact of this film. High school can be difficult enough without the added burden of trying to meet unachievable expectations. The fact that kids like these had to do so (and still do) live with such pressure is something that’s completely foreign to me.
FNL is a great film, and has apparently become a great TV show (I’ve not seen it). It is less about the sport they play or will they win the big game, than about how and why they play it, and how these characters change and grow. It surprised me when I first saw it, and upon re-watching it, has remained an effective, entertaining and moving movie.