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On Screen

Thornton Scores a Touchdown

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page WE45

BEFORE I BEGIN, a bit of full disclosure. As my layout editor noted the other day with some dismay, the Weekend section's two main options for reviewing the new football movie, "Friday Night Lights," were, in her succinct summation, "the Brit" (meaning my colleague, Desson Thomson, for whom "football" inevitably means soccer) and "the geek" (meaning, you guessed it, me, a four-eyed Poindexter who also reviews -- gasp! -- art on the side).

Imagine her surprise then, not to mention my own, when I liked it.

Are you ready for some football? High school football, that is. Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) tries to teach his Permian High Panthers of Odessa, Tex., a thing or two about the game and the game of life in "Friday Night Lights." (Ralph Nelson -- Universal Studios)

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That's because "Friday Night Lights" is not really a "football movie" in the conventional sense. It's more of a "life movie" that happens to be about football. The game, in its refreshingly jaundiced view, is not portrayed as a kind of violent religion, or obsession -- well, it is, sort of, but not purely or gloriously so -- or some grand metaphor for the human condition. It's more of a beautiful sickness, and the film's look of grainy, jolting jump cuts; shaky, hand-held camerawork; and blanched color make the movie feel like it's got the DTs. The residents of Odessa, Tex., where the film is set, are mad for their high school team, and that madness comes across less as an expression of some healthy, all-American fandom than as a kind of addiction. Viscerally directed by Peter Berg, the film doesn't just ask you to look at the monkey on the town's back, but to feel its rabid bite.

Based on the acclaimed nonfiction book by H.G. Bissinger, "Friday Night Lights" charts the 1988 season of the Permian High School Panthers, who that year would play for their fifth state championship in the small west Texas school's 30-year history. Filmed documentary-style, with a verite urgency that careers with adrenaline from the locker room to the stands to the sidelines to the bedrooms, kitchens and barbershops of the town, the movie does not overly revere its subject, which is precisely why it works so well. Oh, it respects football, and it understands football, but it doesn't try to make the sport into something it is not, which, in the case of Odessa -- a town that's not that far away from the middle of nowhere -- is, nevertheless, everything.

As star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) puts it, "The subject is football. Ain't no other subject."

Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton, looking alternately stoic, fierce and scared for his own skin when he starts losing games after Boobie is injured) would have his team of prematurely aged youths learn otherwise, before it's too late. "Do you feel 17?" asks tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), whose abusive, alcoholic father (country singer Tim McGraw) can't seem to forget his own long-dead gridiron glory days. "I don't feel 17," says quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), a kid who never smiles until, close to the film's end, he throws his football away, like a curse.

What Gaines wants his boys to know is that life continues after loss and that being, to use his term, "perfect" is not about the final score, but about doing your best.

That's right. This isn't a winning-isn't-everything-it's-the-only-thing movie. Yes, in the end it does all come down to One Big Game -- and it's a bloody, bone-crunching nail-biter against the bigger, meaner and dirtier team from Dallas's Carter High -- but if you haven't read the book or you don't know the historical outcome, the ending might actually surprise you.

Like the final game itself, the movie is full of both crushing disappointment and hope, resignation and joy, ugliness and great beauty. "Friday Night Lights" is honest because it gets a paradoxical truth: There's more to life than football, even when there isn't.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (PG-13, 110 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual content, underage drinking, emotionally abusive parenting, often brutal gridiron action and occasional bouts of Texan talk so twangy you may wish there were subtitles. Area theaters.

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