“Friday Night Lights” tells the story of an Odessa high school football team trying to win the championship amidst the hysterical zeal of the local townsfolk. The film, directed by Peter Berg is and based on a book by H.G. Bissinger, is well executed in many ways, but ultimately becomes diluted when its unconventional subject matter is veiled behind Hollywood sensibilities.
The film tells the story of the Permian High Panthers, coached by Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton). The people of Odessa expect the team to win the state championship. Odessa ‘s obsession with high school football ranges from quirky and amusing to terrifying. The young athletes are constantly approached by townspeople reminding them of how important it is to win. Coach Gaines is treated as either a hero or a pariah, depending on who won the most recent game. Many scenes are overlaid with Odessa talk radio, where we hear citizens express their opinions about the season with religious fervor. As the season progresses, the people become more sinister.
All of this is fascinating, and Berg would have been wise to spend more time developing this side of the story. After devoting much of the first act to developing the hysteria of the fans, Berg and co-writer David Aaron Cohen relegate the theme to the background and focus on the athletes and coach as they struggle for victory. The lack of thematic unity wounds the film.
This story could have emerged as a fascinating statement about human nature but it becomes instead a story about heroic athletes. The characters, with exception of Gaines, are sketched but not filled in and most of the subplots are predictable.
The movie also suffers from an overload of sentimentality and solemnity. When not featuring old-school rap, the soundtrack becomes unnecessarily soppy and tragic. Every scene is serious and there is not a moment of levity to lighten the film. The movie has only two modes: the adrenaline-charged football mode and the solemn introspective mode.
“Friday Night Lights,” for all its faults, is never a boring movie. The editing is well-paced, especially the game sequences. Whenever the Panthers are ahead, exhilarating low-angle shots of cheerleaders performing acrobatics are cut in. The on-field action has some exciting stunt work. The acting is up to snuff, with Thornton bringing his trademark depth to the role of Gaines. Also notable is Derek Luke whose character, Boobie Miles, has the widest range of emotions in the film. Luke plays the entire arc admirably.
Sports enthusiasts would probably find much to enjoy in this movie. Ultimately, it seemed filmmakers were afraid of the subject matter; they shied away from fully exploring the strange obsession shared by the people of Odessa .