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It's all in the game

A review of Friday Night Lights

Lucas Black as Mike Winchell in Friday Night Lights.
  • Lucas Black as Mike Winchell in Friday Night Lights.

*Friday Night Lights (PG-13)
Universal Pictures

H.G. Bissinger's superb 1990 book about the cult of high school football in a dying West Texas town, Friday Night Lights, is subtitled A Town, A Team and A Dream. In director Peter Berg's screen adaptation, we are left pretty much with the team and spared or served up only snippets of the social and racial history visited in the book. Berg, a cousin of Bissinger's, has poured all he knows into this scrappy film, and the result is at once thrilling and not quite filling.

Friday Night Lights, filmed on location in dusty Odessa, Texas, uses film tricks and abbreviated snapshots of its various characters to tell us that we are in a place that values football over education, and winning above all things. For example, to let us know that the whole town attends the football game on Friday night, the camera pans store windows with handwritten signs announcing: Gone to the game.

At the center of the on-field action is an ensemble of wonderfully cast characters. Billy Bob Thornton is Coach Gary Gaines, passionate but understated, besieged by armchair experts who second-guess and pressure him constantly. Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) is brash, cocksure Boobie Miles, the team's star running back until he blows out his knee early in the season. Garrett Hedlund (Troy) is Don Billingsley, a wide receiver with a self-confidence problem inflicted by his abusive father, Charles, played by country music superstar Tim McGraw in a turn that's surprising in its intensity and authenticity.

Carrying the film alongside Thornton is young Lucas Black (Slingblade, All the Pretty Horses) the team's worried quarterback who wants more than anything to leave Odessa to go to college but fears leaving his sick mother behind. Black has a natural world-weariness and deep intelligence rarely seen in actors his age. In Friday Night Lights, he adds an intense physical performance to his impressive acting repertoire.

What Friday Night Lights does best is exemplify the weight of the dream of championship -- a flag the town fathers carry to convince themselves they still have worth, a beacon for a poor young black man like Boobie with aspirations of greatness and wealth. The dream of championship haunts Charles, a former Permian High state champ who, in one of the film's most poignant scenes, harangues his son Don, insisting that senior year in high school will be the pinnacle of his life, the rest a bitter disappointment.

Thornton's range as an actor is remarkable, and in Friday Night Lights he has reached for a piece of humanity he hasn't yet depicted on film. The son of a high school coach in Arkansas, Thornton understands the territory and digs in deep. In the film's second half, when Permian meets a Dallas team in the state championships, played in the Houston Astrodome, Gaines gives a halftime pep talk to his team that belongs among the great moments in sports film history. Thornton is thoughtful throughout the film, watching his players with the loving eyes of a father, shielding himself and his family from the assault of small-town celebrity.

Friday Night Lights is a bit too jumpy in the first half, with no extended scenes for character or plot development. The effect is jarring and doesn't draw in the viewer. Viewers with an aversion to graphic head butting and the sounds of bones crunching (I count myself among those) will find it difficult to watch at times. But overall, Friday Night Lights is a sweet, inspirational tale of winning, losing and how best to play the game.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

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