Friday Night Lights [2004]

Based on the perennial nonfiction bestseller by H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights looks at high school football in the harsh light of reality, finding heart and hardness while stirring our emotions. Actor-director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things, The Rundown) is Bissinger's cousin; he knows the material well, and understands how an obsession with winning turns high school kids into somber, over-pressured gladiators--expendable soldiers in a community war against shame and obscurity. The fact-based story focuses on the 1988 football season of Odessa-Permian high school in West Texas, and as a fast-paced sports movie, Berg delivers the goods with a rousing, frenetically styled crowd-pleaser. But there's darkness in this tale of weary underdogs, including an abusive father (well-played by country music star Tim McGraw), threatening townsfolk, an injured star running back (Derek Luke), a tormented quarterback (Lucas Black), and the melancholy coach (Billy Bob Thornton) who takes his team to the finals. Berg's film could use less flashy cutting and more drama to support its gridiron intensity, but Friday Night Lights offers a refreshing alternative to the conventional sports movie, and makes a perfect triple-feature with the equally exciting documentaries Go Tigers! and The Last Game. --Jeff Shannon

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