Friday Night Lights (2004)
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Connie Britton, Garret Hedlund, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke
Director: Peter Berg
Available on: Netflix
There is a scene about halfway through Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights when a teenage football player cleans out the locker assigned to him by his high school team. Struck down by a season-ending, future-devouring injury, he delicately retrieves his belongings: Nike sneakers; the brochures full of luxury cars to be a paid for by an NFL career that will now never happen; and an embroidered hand towel bearing the moniker of his on-field alter ego.
To his watching teammates, he offers a jaunty farewell and an engraved nameplate from the locker door, a symbol of his own place within this heralded world, a tangible reminder of his association with something grander than himself.
The young man saunters out to a car driven by a waiting relative. He levers himself into the passenger seat, closes the door and breaks down. His face is etched with sorrow; his body shakes with the grief. He begins to wail, fear and the ghosts of shattered dreams flooding through his mind. "What the hell we going to do?" he gasps, "I can't do nothing else but play football."
It is a raw, powerful and profoundly affecting moment – one of many – in this outstanding, often poetic adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's 1990 non-fiction work of the same name. Widely regarded as one of the finest sports books ever written, Bissinger's account of Permian High School's 1988 football season chronicled so much more than exploits on the field. It touched on provocative, borderline taboo topics: class, race, poverty, educational underachievement and the weird hold exerted by high school football in the barren hinterlands of west Texas.
Berg covers all of this and more. He imbues his picture with an honesty of purpose and reverts to none of the derivative tropes associated with the genre. Instead, he and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler – a regular collaborator – craft a forceful paean to the innocence and brevity of youth, painting in subtle shades while regarding the thrilling action and human drama with the same handheld, improv-heavy, docu-style aloofness that would come to distinguish the similarly acclaimed Friday Night Lights TV adaptation in 2006.
It frames a narrative in which Billy Bob Thornton's head coach, Gary Gaines, is the notional centre. He wields a faintly cynical air, dependant on the demented enthusiasm for the game in Odessa, Texas, though undoubtedly bemused by it. He nevertheless offers serious guidance to those in his charge, as ready with steady advice as he is with inspirational halftime speeches or excoriating put-downs. The self worth of the players he sends into battle is finely balanced, intrinsically linked to how they perform every Friday evening, and the burden is his alone.
Amongst those he is tasked to lead, four stand out. Lucas Black turns his Southern accent and impeccable manners all the way to 11 as quarterback Mike Winchell, whose modest home life reflects his steely play on the gridiron. Jay Hernandez employs some of Thornton's wryness in portraying star safety Brian Chavez, a man armed with all the perspective that Ivy League-level grades can buy. In contrast, Derek Luke mixes brash and desperate as transcendent tailback Boobie Miles. Bound for greatness, Miles is, most certainly, the film's emotional core.
Elsewhere, Garret Hedlund's fumble-plagued fullback, Don Billingsley, does battle with the searing disappointment of his alcoholic father, Charlie (Tim McGraw), whose own fading exploits of a generation before come laden with their own complex baggage.
Indeed, it is this dynamic that best captures one of the tragedies of life in the Texan oilfields' endless reaches. The nasty truth is that these boys, born into a culture that reveres their athletic prowess from an early age, are on the clock, a clock that is loudly counting down to zero. Whatever the pedigree of their team, few will advance to play college ball; fewer still can expect to touch the gilded plane of the NFL. "This is the only thing you're ever gonna have," says Charlie. "It carries you forever."
The prospects in this place appear limited. To get out is to get ahead. However, what chance of that? Winchell's mother's sole focus is his prospective university scholarship. Boobie's uncle, too, is his hype man, wooing the big-school scouts with a running commentary of his nephew's talents, even as the lad struggles to read the suitor letters that arrive every day from the Power Five programmes, each one offering a path to a better life.
Racism rears its head, of course. Some is casual, such as an uncouth remark at a dinner party; some is far more nuanced. When representatives from a majority-black team haggle over the racial composition of the officiating crew – the "zebras" – the underlying issues couldn't be clearer. "How many black stripes these zebras got?" asks the opposing coach. "I believe a zebra's got about the same amount of black ones as he does white ones," deadpans Gaines.
The pressure on the coach and wife Sharon (TV series lead Connie Britton) manifests in strange and uncomfortable ways, be it the 'For Sale' signs spiked into their lawn after a rare loss, the constant drumbeat of phone-in coaches ("They're doing too much learnin' in this school," bleats one idiot on the radio) or the entitled behaviour of the team's wealthy boosters. The result is an atmosphere of heightened tension, a town's collective wellbeing riding on a game played by children.
A seminal score by Austin post-rock deities Explosions in the Sky, all soaring riffs and contemplative notes, reflects this dichotomy between rapture and turmoil. It becomes almost a character in itself, as important and poignant a soundtrack as anything produced over the last two decades.
A brilliantly orchestrated finale is undeniably rousing, yet, ultimately, Friday Night Lights proves itself much more than a mere sports film. It is, instead, a film in which sport is everything: the stage, the backdrop, the hero and the villain. It is the lifeblood of people and place, right and wrong. It is a route out, a defining trait and the barometer by which a community's progress might be gauged.
If this sounds unhealthy, that's because it is. But it's also the truth.