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Review: Football film filled with bright 'Lights'

A tale of a tough team and spirited people

By Paul Clinton

Billy Bob Thornton as the coach in "Friday Night Lights."
Billy Bob Thornton

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- "Friday Night Lights" is set in the town of Odessa, Texas, located on the flat, windswept plains of the state.

Odessa is a hard-scrabble oil industry hub best known for one thing: a championship high school football team, the Permian Panthers. Every young man in Odessa who can possibly play ball carries the expectation of being part of that legendary team.

They have to have those hopes. Being on the Permian Panthers is not only a ticket to winning, but often a ticket out to the wider world.

"Friday Night Lights" tries to capture not only the ground-level football, but the hopes and dreams of its characters, the school and the town. It's about the importance of giving yourself over to something greater than yourself as an individual, being part of a group striving for a common dream.

It mostly succeeds.

Billy Bob Thornton, one of the movies' most accomplished character actors, plays real-life coach Gary Gaines. The coach is a dedicated family man under mind-shattering pressure, by both the school board and the entire town of Odessa, to bring home Permian's fifth state championship in its 30-year history. He'd better; he failed to do so in his first two seasons as coach, and Permian expects winners.

Thornton -- whose father, in real life, was a basketball coach -- carries the role with style and grace. His character is the emotional core of the team.

Star players

But "Friday Night Lights" is a true ensemble piece and Thornton's star wattage doesn't overpower the film. The real stars of this story are the players themselves, and to a great extent the town of Odessa.

Lucas Black plays Mike Winchell, the quiet, uncertain quarterback upon whose shoulders so many expectations rides. He has worked with Thornton two times before; first in the Oscar-winning film "Sling Blade," later in the Thornton-directed "All the Pretty Horses." He's grown both as a man and as an actor.

Also of note is Garrett Hedlund, who plays Don Billingsley, the son of a man who lives his life through his son, trying to recapture his own memories of his former glory days playing for the Panthers. Billinglsey's father is played with great authority by country singer Tim McGraw in his first starring role.

To call football an obsession for the folks of Odessa would be a mighty understatement. For these people the game and what it represents isn't just a sport; it symbolizes the American dream.


Friday Night Lights
Tim McGraw plays an overbearing parent to Garrett Hedlund in the film.

The 1990 H. G. "Buzz" Bissinger book on which the movie is based caused a minor scandal in Odessa. Many townsfolk believed the book criticized the town's obsession with the game of football to the detriment of its academic standards. You can't underestimate the hatred the town still has for the book.

Director Peter Berg -- who happens to be a second cousin of Bissinger -- has carefully avoided those pitfalls with an outstanding screenplay, written along with David Aaron Cohen. Though a lot of the dodging was done by concentrating on what happens at the line of scrimmage, the film still offers a knowing look at the town and its culture.

Berg's use of a hand-held camera and the gritty look of the film also add greatly to the authenticity of the action.

"Friday Night Lights" will be classified as a sports film, but it has none of the glossy sheen given most of that genre. It's better that that -- better than a simple ride to what's often a foregone conclusion. "Lights" feels real, honest and -- most of all -- heartfelt, and it's filled with good performances and a fine spirit.

"Friday Night Lights" opens nationwide on Friday and is rated PG-13.

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