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'Lights' dives into HS football

photo courtesy of Universal
Yes, "Friday Night Lights" is a movie about small-town football in the middle of Texas. No, unlike "Varsity Blues," it does not feature a girl wearing a bikini made of whipped cream.
By Nate Buchik
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 14, 2004
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You know what you're getting into when you decide to watch a sports movie.

Inspiring speeches.

Unbelievable odds.

Complete sappiness.

"Friday Night Lights" has all that.

But so do the best (and worst) sports movies. The good sports movies, however, make you buy into that sappiness.


7 out of 10

Universal Studios
Rated: PG-13
117 min.
Now Playing

Set in the small town of Odessa, Texas, "Lights" is the true story of the Permian High Panthers and their quest for the "perfect season." Football is popular in Texas - as we learned in "Varsity Blues" - so the boys of the 1988 team are treated like royalty around town with free food at the local fast food joints and a bevy of willing females.

And the team is good. Very good. They've got a chance to win state behind the senior nucleus of the team: quarterback Mike Winchell, cornerback Brian Chavez, defensive tackle Ivory Christian, backup running back Don Billignsley and star running back Boobie Miles.

Miles (Derek Luke) is on his way to a college scholarship and knows he's hot shit. He's the team's hope for the year, showcasing his star power and flavor. But, unfortunately, if there's a hot shot in a sports movie, you know what's happening to him.

When he goes down with an injury in the first game and may be gone for the year, the team falls into disarray. They need Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) to help pick them up.

Behind underclassman running back Chris Coomer, the Panthers rebound from the loss and keep improving over the course of the season. Gaines plays for his job every Friday night, and the kids play their hearts out. The final game is a doozy, played at Houston's Astrodome against an all-black team from the other side of Texas.

Then comes the halftime speech, the sappiness, the unbelievable odds. But I bought into it. I let the game happen and rooted for every second until the inevitable conclusion. Director Peter Berg perfectly captures the ecstasy of a great game played by a great team.

Buzz Bizzinger's book - which the film is based on - provides ample material to make every character deep, but simple enough to fit into two hours. Although some of the relationships are underdeveloped - like Winchell's with his strange mother - the outcome of the movie depends on the audience caring about each story, and I did.

Billignsley's life is the most interesting, although possibly the most played out. His father (Tim McGraw), a former state champion running back, can't let go of his dreams, and his answer to the fumble woes and slacking attitude of his son is chock full of abuse.

The tension between the two is apparent in every scene, which makes it odd to see a father/son lovefest not seen since "Big Fish" at the end.

Dizzying editing intensifies the football action (like "Any Given Sunday") and solid acting make even the most despicable characters watchable.

But deep themes in the meaning of "team" and how to treat memories make the film stand out.

All this adds up to caring who's on top when the final whistle blows, even when it's lamer than the end of "Cool Runnings."

While the cynic in me says too much of the film ends on an uplifting note, most of me wants to accept that it really happened that way.

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