Somber tone in "Friday Night Lights" sets it yards apart


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A boy and his coach, post-butt slap / pre-cigarette.

There's a point "Friday Night Lights" where worn-out football coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) tells his struggling quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) that there hasn't been much difference in the way he feels lately. Whether they've just won or lost the game, he feels about the same. It's a defining moment of the film, and it sets a surprisingly sober tone for a high school football movie.

This is not a story about winning the "big game." It's an adaptation of the best-selling book by H.G. Bissinger about a particularly memorable season of the Permian Panthers from Odessa, Texas. What writer/director Peter Berg has put on the screen is an unusually dark and serious examination of the intense pressure put on teenagers in a poor town.


Friday Night Lights ***


Billy Bob Thornton is a Texas high school football coach under intense community pressure to win a state championship in this unique sports film. There's not time to draw all the characters fully, but writer/director Peter Berg uses hand-held cameras and washed out colors to convey the players' personal struggles.

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"Friday Night Lights" juggles five or six major characters with varying degrees of success. The players in "Friday Night Lights" are forced to grow up real fast. Not only do they have to live up to the expectations of parents and a victory-obsessed community, but their peers at school all want to share in the team's inevitable success. If these are the "best days of their lives," they're not portrayed like you might expect. When Winchell makes it with the popular "loose" girl at school, she just quickly puts her clothes back on, kisses him, and leaves the used and bewildered kid sitting alone on the bed. There's no triumphant hand-slapping with his friends.

By casting virtual unknown actors as the football players, Berg's static shots are augmented by a sense of realism that would be a lot harder to achieve with noticeable stars. (Thornton's subtle performance renders the actor barely recognizable.) And the soundtrack follows suit. There's no showcasing the usual rah-rah,"Go Team," aggressive, Kid Rock, "upchuck the boogie" style, Ford-tough, football-crunching hit rock music. Instead Berg uses a more introspective soundtrack featuring plaintive indie-rock noodling from Explosions in the Sky. It is a bold move, and it gives some of the football scenes an oddly contemplative mood. All of this suggests that Berg knew the pitfalls inherent in the script and came at "Friday Night Lights" like it was an independent film.

The inherent racism of the town is never really addressed until a very clumsy scene toward the end. Many deficient elements of the story are glossed over and some are made better through the film's approach. And, although the football sequences are a bit hyped up for high school standards, they stand on their own as well. If there's one thing that's really impressive about "Friday Night Lights," it is the convincing and scary portrait of a town whose every hope and dream rests with one Coach and a group of young men.


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