Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines
Lucas Black as Mike Winchell
Garrett Hedlund as Don Billingsley
Derek Luke as Boobie Miles
Jay Hernandez as Brian Chavez
Lee Jackson as Ivory Christian
Lee Thompson Young as Chris Comer
Tim McGraw as Charles Billingsley
Grover Coulson as L.V. Miles
Connie Britton as Sharon Gaines
Connie Cooper as Mrs. Winchell
Kasey Stevens as Flippy
Ryanne Duzich as Melissa
Amber Heard as Maria
Morgan Farris as Jennifer Gaines
Friday Night Lights is a Texas football movie and makes no qualms about it. There are numerous hard-crunching gridiron scenes to keep the ESPN crowd happy, but what elevates the film is director Peter Berg’s careful and keen understanding of the kids that make up the 1988 Permian High football team. Director Berg and his talented slate of actors, headed by Billy Bob Thornton, are able to mediate effectively between drama and football and this fact makes Friday Night Lights burn brightly.
H.G. Bissinger, writer of 1990 novel that the film is based on, was traveling through the state of Texas when he stumbled upon the sleepy town of Odessa. He discovered the town stayed in a constant sleep until Friday nights, when the entire town whisked into the multi-million dollar football stadium at Permian High School. The team is united under Coach Gary Gaines, a wonderfully restrained Billy Bob Thornton, who attempts to keep the squad under control. And there is much to contain regarding the team.
Cocky upstart Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) fends off numerous invitations to top colleges. Mike Winchell, gloriously played by Lucas Black, grew up with his grandmother and doesn’t seem aware that he is the quarterback and anchor of the team. There is Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who has to deal with an abusive former Panther father (played by Tim McGraw in a bit of stunt casting that actually works). There are a host of other supporting characters, but the film mainly focuses on these three, along with the effect Gaines has on them.
Director Peter Berg makes a stylish and smart move by establishing a documentarian point-of-view. This helps to add a dash of realism to the proceedings and makes the football scenes believable and riveting. Berg uses many long shots and grainy stock to create the world of Odessa and it works like a charm.
What also helps the world of Odessa is a superior casting job by Berg. No one in the film, including the leading actors, look like movie stars or anyone that could claim they come from anywhere other than Texas. Billy Bob Thornton certainly can claim this statement as his Coach Gary Gaines speaks in a low, Texas drawl, but never seems to raise his voice until it’s absolutely necessary. Touches like these make the film much different than it looks; it’s not the stereotypical football film with black and white characters. There are elements of nuance and intelligence stuck between the football sequences.
Not that the football sequences are anything to scoff at. They are expertly filmed with enough cuts to disorient the viewer and still keep the viewer aware of the ongoing game. The amount of game footage is unbelievable considering we see many plays from multiple angles. What makes these football scenes so meaningful is the fantastic cast.
Thornton heads the cast, but the true standout is Lucas Black as the nervous quarterback. His southern drawl completely endears the audience to his plight. Black (who first starred with Thornton in Sling Blade) has some very sad eyes and they are put to great use in the film.
Derek Luke, who hasn’t made much of an impression since his widely-acclaimed debut in Antwone Fisher, shows why audiences paid attention to him in the first place. Playing the arrogant Boobie Miles, Luke excels and portrays a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. Also, the dynamic between McGraw and Hedlund is palpable and didn’t leave a dry eye in the audience at the final moments of the film.
Regarding the final moments of the film, many in the audience felt cheated by the end. There were many comments relating that the ending didn’t gel with the rest of the film, but since the movie is based on a true story, facts need to be faithful. Though the film does take some liberties, the period of 1988 is kept up adequately.
Friday Night Lights is a serious drama about football; don’t head into the movie expecting a light and happy tale. If you can handle the rough facts, Friday Night Lights is definitely worth a Friday night look.