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Cast shines in chilling football drama

Brandon Hollihan | Monday, October 25, 2004

It’s Friday night in a small Texas town and all the stores are closed, which can only mean one thing – everyone’s “gone to the game.” Such is life in “Friday Night Lights,” the screenplay adapted from the book of the same name by H.G. Bissinger. The film is set in the year 1988 in Odessa, Texas, home of the statewide-renowned Permian High School Mojo. Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) leads the team. Several of his football players are huge stars. All of them are under intense scrutiny. Lose a game here and the town turns on you, but win the state title, and they’ll remember you forever. Instead of documenting the football team with the pomp and circumstance most films would employ, director Peter Berg emphasizes the huge burden placed upon these teenage athletes. The young acting ensemble in “Friday Night Lights” is one of the best you’ll see in any sports movie. Derek Luke plays gifted tailback Boobie Miles, a swaggering star facing serious issues when he suffers a career-threatening injury early in the preseason. Lucas Black plays quarterback Mike Winchell, and he gives a solid performance, but is trapped in playing the clichéd quarterback that has interests outside of football and his local town. Luke and Black stand out most from the other talented young actors because they do such an excellent job identifying their characters’ struggles – for example, the contrast between what they truly want and what everyone around them expects. This can also be said with regards to the relationship between offensive leader Don Billingsley (Garret Hedlund) and his father Charles (country singer Tim McGraw), a former high school standout with overbearing expectations on his son’s success in winning the state championship. One has to feel uncomfortable whenever the father and son are on the screen alone, because of the potential of what could happen – but often never does, leaving the viewer on edge.This concept also ties into many of the film’s consequences. What if Boobie stayed healthy throughout the season? What if Winchell could evade his fears outside football and be the leader his coach is begging for him to be? All of the relationships and connections in “Friday Night Lights” are explicit, giving the viewer not a sense of triumph but struggle as the team marches toward the eventual state championship game. When we finally get to that game, the team’s burden, instead of lightening, becomes almost too much to bear. The town’s expectations are so high that to falter now would be even worse than suffering a losing season.In conclusion, this is powerful, revealing stuff. Current and former athletes will definitely relate to it, and all of us will certainly reminisce about what our high school Friday nights were like as we watch the film. As coach Gaines tells Winchell, “I realized a long time ago that winning and losing aren’t all that different.” This movie illustrates how it’s not the success of teams like Permian that make high school football what it is in this country, but rather the fascinated culture circulating around it. This is what life is like, when football is a way of life.