In Odessa, Texas, high school football is no casual pastime, it's a passion religious in its fervor. And the teenage boys who play for the Permian Panthers--Texas's most successful high-school team--are treated, in those all too brief years of glory, like gods. That is, when they play well. Journalist H. G. Bissinger followed the team through its 1988 season, and his best-selling book "Friday Night Lights" has become a kind of classic. It chronicles a town whose identity is inextricably tied to the fate of its team: an exhilarating, and terrifying, prospect.
That ambivalent electricity courses through Peter Berg's bone-crunching, heart-twisting movie. "Friday Night Lights" gets you cheering for the Panthers, but it's a far cry from the usual rah-rah sports-movie formula--closer, in texture and ambition, to the documentary "Hoop Dreams" than to the pious "Remember the Titans." While its concentration rarely strays from the gridiron, it has lots to say about race, class, celebrity, competition and the way dreams can inspire as well as devour the dreamer.
The coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), has a bigger salary than the school's principal. Everything in the bleak, wind-swept west Texas town looks puny next to the gleaming stadium. That 1988 season, the team's hopes for a state championship ride on running back Boobi Miles (Derek Luke of "Antwone Fisher"), a cocky, hotshot prospect who has college recruiters drooling. The quarterback, Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), is Boobie's opposite: an uncertain, unsmiling kid taking care of a sick mother. Even worse off is fumble-prone tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), living with his vicious, alcoholic father (Tim McGraw), a former high-school football star whose life has dead-ended. Disaster strikes the Panthers when Boobi is hurt. For a guy whose locker is filled with Mercedes Benz catalogs, whose only hope of a future lies in football, the idea that his knee injury is serious is too cataclysmic to be believed.
Berg's film, which he wrote with David Aaron Cohen, explodes in a hyperventilating, handheld, fast-cutting style that threatens, at first, to become overbearing. But inside the flash is subtlety: these brief glimpses are always telling. Nothing is superfluous. The surprise is how deeply engaged you become with the characters, how shattering their victories and defeats become. The movie can only skim the sociological surface that Bissinger explored in depth. And Berg sometimes sacrifices football logic for drama: with a minute left and half a field to cover to win, you don't call running plays. That said, few films have shown so powerfully the slashing double edge of sports fever.