- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Universal
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
n the true spirit of the sports drama, “Friday Night Lights” features a captivating tale about overcoming adversity through teamwork. Unlike a lot of the more recent football movies, however, this one isn’t about race, but rather the radical expectations that are placed on the young men by their coach and neighbors to succeed. If this sounds a lot like “Varsity Blues,” it’s because both movies follow a very similar path. While that film took a slightly more “Dawson’s Creek”-style approach to the story, however, “Friday Night Lights” offers a more serious, and ultimately more rewarding, look at the inner workings of a Texas high school football team.
Based on the book by H.G. Bissinger, the film stars Billy Bob Thorton as Gary Gaines, the new coach of the 1988 Permian Panthers, who’s been brought in to lead the small-town high school to their first state title in years. The crux of their success relies on the talent of hot shot running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), but when his dreams of turning pro are ruined by a freak knee injury, Gaines is forced to lean on his other veteran players to carry the team into the playoffs. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Starting quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is hesitant about assuming the leadership role; fumble-prone tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is constantly criticized by his deadbeat father (Tim McGraw); and tight end Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) is one of the few players who isn’t depending on football as his ticket out of Odessa.
Directed by Peter Berg, “Friday Night Lights” is a remarkable depiction of an economically depressed town that looks to football for excitement and inspiration, and his decision to shoot the film in a raw and gritty documentary style only further helps in achieving that realism. Though the movie doesn’t rely so much on individual actors as it does the core unit, Billy Bob Thorton still delivers his best performance since “A Simple Plan.” Unfortunately, most of the player characters aren’t given much chance to develop outside of the locker room. There are a few exceptions to the rule – like the emotional struggle between the Billingsleys and the trauma that Boobie Miles experiences when his future is threatened by injury – but even those get cut short in order to make room for more intense on-the-field action.
“Friday Night Lights” never seems to fade away from projecting the gloomy spirits of the Odessa townspeople, even during their victories, but its ability to represent their undying conviction for their football team is a rare quality. Even rarer is that a film as good as this could spawn a television series that’s even better. For as much attention as the show may receive, though, it wouldn’t be possible without Berg’s underrated football drama. Those looking for more character development will find plenty on the TV incarnation, but what you won’t find is the kind of bone-breaking football sequences that make “Friday Night Lights” one of the best in the genre.\
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
“Friday Night Lights” will probably never earn the respect it deserves (even with the critical success of the TV series), but at least Universal is still willing to show it some love on Blu-ray. Like its HD-DVD counterpart, the single-disc release features all of the original DVD extras – including an audio commentary with director Peter Berg and writer Buzz Bissinger, deleted scenes, and an interesting look back through the eyes of some of the real-life participants – as well as two new featurettes that, quite frankly, should have been available since Day One. “Gridiron Grads” shows the ins-and-outs of auditioning to become a player extra in a football movie, while “Behind the Lights” is a run-of-the-mill making-of featurette that, while it does recycle some material from the other extras, is still a nice addition to the set.