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Based on a real-life story and book, Friday Night Lights follows the dramatic 1988 season of high school American football team the Permian Panthers, led by noble-minded head coach Gary Gaines (Thornton).This is a season that will come to enfold all the hopes, brutal realities and personal tragedies of a hardscrabble town called Odessa, lost among the desiccated plains of Texas. If you've read the premise for this vivid, compelling movie and have immediately switched off at the thought of another story about that incomprehensible, herky-jerky US sport, you should know different. But hurry: Netflix is taking the show down come October.
As the team coach, Thornton is the honest-to-God kinda guy who, ironically, sees through the devotional haze; winning isn't everything, it only feels like it. The all-consuming obsession of Odessa, down to radio phone-ins and car park confrontations, carries the same religious patter as rabid soccer support does here. Berg is smart enough to find something suspicious in this and also the absurdity that Bissinger observed: the coin-toss to decide a tournamentÆs outcome, the real estate signs staked out on the coach's lawn after defeat, the inverse racism applied to influence referees ("zebras").
Such detail allows the film to breathe, keeping it aloft from the go-go sport-as-American-metaphor cliches too often hung on the game. The action has the punching, rhythmic edits of genuine sports coverage, and in among the players' lives the handheld camerawork has the unblinking force of a documentary.
The swaying emotion of the seesaw season carries a universal clarity. Yet, Berg's delivery still possesses an essential movieness, and his film has a mythical reach, skies filled with the contrails of unattainable dreams.
These are less the tones of the melodramatic sports milieu than the romantic Western, the young cowpoke's rite-of-passage transmuted from the chaparral to the stadium.
Religion plays a role in the show, in the form of an evangelical Christianity whose enthusiastic services, in a large exurban church, distinctly resemble the football team’s pep rallies; and, on the other side of town, a black congregation struggling to pay the pastor.
But the show itself is essentially Christian in the cycles of spiritual experience it puts its characters through: error and discovery; confession; punishment and shame; and finally the chance for redemption.
There’s also Brian “Smash” Williams, a star running back being raised by a single mom and desperate to get a college football scholarship; when the congregation at his church scrapes together a collection to help him pay for an SAT prep course, he uses it instead on performance-enhancing drugs.
And among the female characters, a blonde bombshell named Tyra Collette struggles to avoid the fate of her older sister, a strip-club dancer, and her mother, perpetually dependent on men who treat her badly; but Tyra herself half relishes her own bad-girl reputation, and rejects a smart but nerdy boy who loves her in favor of a handsome rogue who comes to town with the rodeo.
Yes, this is a film about American football, but it is so much more.
It is a stark survey of the hold sport has on life, with its tribal allure and power to devastate both supporter and player.