A review of “Friday Night Lights” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for sexuality and language

Run Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

 

 

Director Peter Berg scores big with this gritty adaptation of H.G. Bissinger’s compelling novel of eating and breathing the gridiron in rural Texas.

Just how far will a player and his family go to win the Texas State Championship for high school football? The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are lifeblood for Odessa’s Permian Panthers, a feisty team of second-generation blue-collar over-and-underachievers who band together to win the big one for the Gipper.

Friday nights at Ratliff Stadium, circa 1988. Twenty-thousand screaming fans in the bleachers, worshipping at the shrine of the pigskin.  Coach Gary Gaines’ (Billy Bob Thornton) boys take to the field for guts, glory, and the chance to escape the stultifying smallness of an economically depressed town that’s a long road to nowhere.

Pressure rears its ugly head as the perennial powerhouse works itself into a fevered pitch to notch another win, and the division title.  Barely eighteen, these cocky teen gladiators are in the thick of it -- overcoming season-crushing injuries, abusive family members (country crooner Tim McGraw in a stunning debut), and the wrath of a community for whom winning is tantamount to breathing. 

Friday could have yielded a been-there, done-that quality, as is often the case with sports films. But Berg skillfully gilds his project with a surprisingly indie edge.  Dusty, washed-out color, minimal scripting, and first-rate game footage. 

Characterizations skim the surface, not delving as deep at they should but offering an essence of the pain and commitment necessary to succeed on and off the athletic field.  A powerful and poignant ode to the heartache and thrill of the game.