Friday Night Lights (PG-13) ★★½

Review Date: October 8th, 2004

Friday Night Lights zeroes in on the trial and tribulations of a highly touted small-town high school football program going for the championship. Gripping? Gut wrenching? Sure, but if you've seen one high school football movie, especially one set in Texas, you've seen them all.

Story

Based on H.G. ''Buzz'' Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name, Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa, where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20,000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium, the country's biggest high school football field, every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers, Odessa's ''boys in black,'' take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky, self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong, self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing, abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes, that Tim McGraw, the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader, middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts, amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.

Acting

There isn't a false note in any of the performances, and no one falls back on clich├ęd versions of their characters, as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines, keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass, insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him), or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines, too, has to deal with his own pressures, especially from the townsfolk, who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players, Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out, and still very serious. It works for the young actor, though, as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie, whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley, trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw, making his film debut as the father, a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit, basically beating it into his son. First, Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife), in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?

Direction

From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those, this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs, second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can, bless their hearts. Still, there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping, with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion, and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, Berg effectively paints his own gritty, documentary-style picture of the competitive sport, without relying on too many trite, gushy, over-the-top moments. And to give it credit, the film does not necessarily have a feel-good, ''let's win one for the Gipper'' ending; it is based on a true story, after all, and as we know, real life isn't all sunshine and roses, especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.

Bottom Line

Perhaps if Friday Night Lights was the first high school football story to come to the big screen, it would be one of the best. Even though the film does sport some superb performances and tackles gritty realism with gusto, it isn't the first to do that--far from it.