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Film Fare...with Mark Moorehead

Friday Night Lights

General Audience: B+

Sports fans, men in particular, will fill theater seats to see the agony and ecstasy of small town high school football because Ďtis the season. No nudity or graphic violence.

Family Audience: B-

Rated PG-13 for sexual content (very brief), teen drinking and language. Although drinking and bad language attract a wider teen audience, they detract from the core story and perpetuate a stereotype that all high school jocks drink, womanize and talk trash.

Permian, if you remember the old high-school geology chart hanging on the wall, was that period when the surface of the world was covered with a thick jungle of vegetation, which eons later became a vast oil field under the desolate surface of west Texas.

Odessa is a sleepy town that sits on top of the Permian basin. Other than jobs in the oil industry, the only thing that keeps folks from leaving town is the best high school football team in the state, the Permian Panthers.

In the 1980s, the Panthers were one of the top five high school football teams in the country and had the best post season win record in Texas history.

Each year, 25,000 residents of Odessa fill the bleachers under the towering lights of Ratliff Stadium to cheer on the home team. Itís virtually a religious ritual with the pomp and circumstance of the Summer Olympics.

Permianís fan club expects the team to win big because the thought of losing is unimaginable.

Friday Night Lights is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. Bassingerís 1990 book of the same name and stars Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) as Panthers coach Gary Gaines.

Itís the 1988 season. Coach Gainesí cool demeanor is in stark contrast to the tremendous pressure brought to bear on him by the team, their families and the city of Odessa to win another state championship.

In a small town accustomed to winning, you may as well put a ďFor SaleĒ sign in your front lawn if you have a losing season.

Unfortunately, things go badly in the season opener. Bobbie Miles (played by Derek Luke), the Panthersí star running back, experiences a career-ending knee injury, changing his life forever.

Coach Gaines scrambles to find a replacement. Subsequent games degenerate into desperate acts of winning at any cost, including the humiliation of players like Don Billingsley (Derek Hedlund) by his father (played expertly by recording star Tim McGraw) when he fumbles a ball.

Every Friday night the hopes and dreams of the people of Odessa rise and fall, depending on the outcome of game.

Director Peter Berg succeeds in capturing the excitement and the intoxicating addiction of this sport in Odessa. At the same time, he exposes the underlying anxiety and troubling expectations within the community that culminate in a confrontation between Panther boosters and Gaines.

Viewers must remember, however, that this is a movie, and Berg does exaggerate the obsession of high school football in the lives of most of Odessa citizens. These people do have day jobs and a life before and after football season. And, Iím certain Odessa, Tex., is not as bleak in the daylight as it appears in this film. Now back to the game.

Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), an able quarterback, comes to the rescue, keeping the teamís chances of playing in the state championship alive. However, his low self-esteem and sickly mother drag him down. This we know only happens in movies. Have you ever known any high school quarterback with low self-esteem, sick mother or not?

Friday Night Lights is all about a coach and his players in the biggest pressure cooker in high school football and how they deal with that reality.

As Coach Gaines, Thornton shines like he hasnít shined in years. He scores as coach, counselor, minister, parent and motivational speaker to these young athletes.

Contrasting Thorntonís previous roles as a vulgar and self-destructive Santa Claus, his football coach character makes it through all four quarters as the honest, vulnerable, good olí boy we know and like.

Thornton delivers up an image of a man with strong convictions, confidence and a subtle intelligence without resorting to the predictable type of self-flagellation portrayed in other sport- themed films any time a game is lost.

Most importantly, his character knows sport fans will turn on you faster than you can flip a game coin, but itís nothing personal.

Pecan Groves Estates resident Mark Moorehead writes regularly for Wrangler News.

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