I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this bone-crunching true story of dreams in a dusty land.
And you’ll love it if you’ve ever lived in a small town where kids count the days until they can leave, and adults wallow in regret that they didn’t. Or if you ever wanted to win so bad, your whole life depended on it — and then you lost.
It’s late summer and fall in 1988 in the town of Odessa. The only things that break the monotony of the endless, flat dryness of west Texas are the oil rigs that dot the land like creaky megaliths. Sunday is church day. Friday night is football.
Nothing in Odessa is as important as the high-school football team and the boys whose young shoulders carry the burden of the dying town’s civic pride. Nothing causes more fluctuating tempers on the local radio than the ups and downs of the Permian High Panthers. When they win, everyone’s happy. If they lose, “there’s too much learnin’ goin’ on at school instead of football practice.”
In this football-mad world, the school’s coach makes more money than the principal. If he brings the Panthers to state victory, he’ll be worth every penny. If not, he’ll be reviled, because everybody thinks they know more than he does. Like all true heroes, the coach does what he thinks is right and keeps his counsel to himself. He’s Coach Gary Gaines, played by Billy Bob Thornton (The Alamo), in a hauntingly nuanced, quiet performance (not unlike what Gary Cooper would have achieved). Gaines knows that he has to teach his players more than football, for in this sad place, he is the only honest adult the boys may ever know.
For most players, life will peak at age 18, their last season of high school football. “Babies and memories,” they’re told by previous players, “that’s all you have when it’s over.” Country singer Tim McGraw (in a terrifying portrait of drunken parental abuse) plays the former football star who screams at his son Don Billingsley (Hedlund, Troy), “You got one stinking year to make some memories!”
Boobie Miles (Luke, Antwone Fisher) is the Panther star whose ego is as vast as the horizon. “This is God-given,” he brags about his talents. “All I gotta do is show up.” He taunts the others with his inevitable glory — the fast cars, the girls, the life of ease his beautiful body will bring him. Then he’s seriously injured in the first game of the season. As Boobie watches the garbage men work outside his house, you want to bleed with him for his shattered dreams.
“By now you’ve learned life is not fair,” Coach Gaines tells Mike Winchell (Black, Cold Mountain), who must choose between football and his sick mother.
“Be perfect,” the coach is always telling the boys. But he defines that word in a unique way. “Perfect,” he tells them, “is about your relationship to yourself and your family and friends and giving everything you could.” He demands they live in a moment in which “[you] can look at one another with clear eyes and joy in your heart. If you can do that – you are perfect.”
Of course, there’s lots of football action in this movie, footage of Permian High players intercut with NFL players. Lights definitely rocks, or rather runs, and throws, grabs, grinds, grunts, growls and crashes in more noisy ways than any normal mother wants to think about. Director Peter Berg (The Rundown) seems to be hurling himself toward the action-director A-team in the style of Michael Mann (no complaints there), along with cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler. But the reason Lights soars above most sports movies is its source material, the best-selling book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. Bissinger (who also happens to be director Berg’s cousin).
Before the crowd of 55,000 fans crammed into the Astrodome, will the Panthers become champions? Will they remember the coach’s words? “Ain’t much difference between winning and losing except how the outside world treats you.”
– reviewed by Marci Miller