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Friday Night Lights


gen-x-review-friday-night-lights-posterNothing is more serious than a game.


When you’re 17 and you see your whole life compressed into four quarters of a football game, you know nothing will ever be as sweet as your next quarterback sack. And as you count down the last seconds of the last game of your life, you’re certain that something precious has been spent and passed on.


Friday Night Lights is one of the best sports movies ever made, but perhaps more important is how it captures the anxiety, fear and excitement of 17 so expertly that it draw us all together, whether or not you remember the glory days of youth from a gridiron. As much a story of young people coming to grips with the limits of their hopes and fears as a story about a football team trying to overcome the odds, Friday Night Lights is a rare and unexpected joy.


Friday Night Lights follows coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton, Monsterball) as he leads the Permian High Panthers of Odessa, Texas, to the 1988 championship game. The team is small, the coach admits, but is also fast, determined and smart. There’s reason to believe it can succeed against the odds, but the town turns nasty when a key player is injured and the hopes of championship dwindle.


Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is such a gifted player that the team has been designed to follow his lead. Other, less talented players must accept the responsibility of carrying the team when he’s sidelined. Boys like Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) and Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) are forced to become leaders, although everything in their nature tells them to blend in and disappear.


Don lives in the shadow of his tyrannical dad, Charles, played by Tim McGraw – a man who lives mostly in the past when life was as simple as a coin toss. Charles bullies his son, goes to games drunk, and seems to have spent the last 20 years gnawing on memories of his youth. After his son drops the football during practice, Charles tapes the ball to his hands and berates him in front of his girlfriend.


Mike’s mom is ill and he’s torn between searching for a future he knows will lead him out of Odessa and feeling the need to care for her in her last days. He shuffles uncertainly through life, rarely breaking a smile and uncertain that he has what it takes to be a leader. The town looks to him to help elevate it above its everyday conditions, but Mike barely seems able to care for himself, let alone his mother and all of Odessa.


Texas is as desolate and hopeless as a dead planet. Although the rough rolling desert landscape is fertile ground for dreams, it’s a very poor place in which to hope for anything better than more of the same. Former heroes populate the world like ghosts, unable to pass on or give up the mantle of their former glory.


The American dream died in a place like Odessa, surrounded by “for sale” signs and dry oil wells. In this world football is the only thing left to believe in, the only dream that has an even chance to succeed. Adults hanging onto less than nothing can still find reasons to cheer as their local heroes march off to play.

 

Football players are the soldiers of the school and the heroes of the Dairy Queen. The community only comes together at the games, and the radio is constantly buzzing about the local team. The town’s frustration, desperation and disappointment is vented into football, where young boys must make the secret dreams of adults come true by throwing themselves at one another.


But even young bodies break, especially when a town’s weight is slung over their shoulders. Bones snap, muscles tear, and the town’s hopelessness bears down on these kids until you can see the strain on their faces. It seems as though all roads lead nowhere in Odessa, but their small town is the only place these kids are ever going to feel what it’s like to be a legend.


That’s a lot of pressure for someone still nagged by persistent zits and can’t look girls in the eye yet, and at one point Mike turns to Don and asks, “Do you really feel 17?”


It’s a tough world, and these characters know that everything can be taken away in a flash. What happens to a person who peaks at 17, on the last play of the last game of his life? Charles tells Don that it’s only downhill from this – admittedly low – point. “Football is the only thing you’re ever going to have,” he says.


The fascinating thing about Friday Night is not that it presents easily recognized characters, but that these people seem fully fleshed out and developed, even when they are acting in ways that seem stereotypical. Charles is more than an abusive father: He is a man driven by demons that tell him youth disappears in a flash, you can never get it back, and his son does not see the importance this game will have in 20 years.


Thornton and McGraw are riveting, and the young cast does an excellent job of showing kids on the brink. Pacing the sidelines like a wild beast, Thornton fluctuates between being a benevolent voice of reason to his team and a raging animal caught in the midst of the game. McGraw’s chilling portrayal shows a nuanced understanding of what makes some grown men atrophy from staring too long into their high school yearbooks.


The film radiates a kind of kinetic energy. The director uses simple, sparse shots that let the action speak for itself, and you get a feeling of nearness to the action that other films, like Any Given Sunday, gloss over by trying to appear slick. Although some of the bone-crushing action is overboard, you never lose track of the fact that these sounds are attached to actual human bodies being twisted and broken.


The film is about the redemption and transformation of the game. What we share with these boys is more than a distant memory of our own glory days – it is a hope in the power and glory of youth. These are the dreams that are articulated through these mostly anonymous bodies on football fields all across America every weekend, and there’s something sweet and tender there, even when it turns black with envy.


The game is serious, folks. Sometimes it’s the closest we ever come to perfection.

 

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