In the punt, pass, and pray world of Texas football, the goal post is a holy crossbar, and you'd best genuflect before the uprights if you know what's good for you. Lone Star Staters seek salvation in their pro and college teams, but they unleash their almightiest zealotry for the high school game, where teenagers often play out of fear rather than for fun, and coaches are rudely welcomed with "For Sale" signs in their yards after each loss.
"Friday Night Lights," faithfully based on H.G. Bissinger's 1990 nonfiction bestseller, is both a poignant celebration and a chilly condemnation of the high school gridiron as God's country. A true story, it marvels at the pure beauty of a tightly spiraled Hail Mary pass and the intricate camaraderie of young men, but it also takes its gritty time blanching at a beastly community -- dunderheaded teachers and parents of players included -- that cheers for uniforms rather than for the kids quaking inside them. Only in the flick's final act does a rah-rah Tinseltown touch intrude on the verite feel, but by that point, even the most cynical of filmgoers will be calling out for a Kleenex.
The year is 1988, and the town is Odessa, where the flatlands feature just as many oil derricks as end zones. As a searing summer gives way to a balmy fall, the only talk in town -- on radios, in barbershops, in police stations -- is about whether the Permian High School football crew, which plays in a colossal $6 million stadium, has the guts to win the state championship.
The Permian Panthers certainly have the talent. This season's stud running back is Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), an exquisitely ripped, defiantly cocky kid whose locker overflows with desperate pleas from big-name colleges -- not to mention slick brochures for the luxury cars that he'll surely be steering once he jukes his way to the pros. The quarterback is sullen cutie Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), whose only job is to hand the ball to Boobie and watch the points pile up. Wanton women throw themselves at the pigskin slinger -- and redneck neighbors thrust their infant children at him, seeking both blessing and photo op -- but Mike is miserable: He knows he'll never get out of dreary Odessa unless he shows off his arm for college scouts, but he's afraid to leave out of concern for his mentally unhinged mother, who ruins her son's breakfast by sternly quizzing him about the team's playbook.
The team's question mark just may be its head coach, Gary Gaines (an understated Billy Bob Thornton), who has failed to win the state championship in his first two seasons at the school. The opposite of the stereotypical go-get-'em play caller, Gaines is a pensive X's-and-O's man, and his solemn nature and genuine affection for his players make him suspect in the eyes of select boosters before the season even begins. His mantra is "Be perfect," but that rallying cry starts to sound wrongheaded to Gaines when townsfolk barge into his office to suggest new defensive schemes and all but threaten him and his family if the Panthers don't bring the trophy home.
Actor-turned-director Peter Berg, whose previous helming gigs were the mean-spirited "Very Bad Things" and the dum-dum actioner "The Rundown," smoothly unveils the Panthers' season like a fever dream, bleaching the color from the scenes off the field and telling those between-game stories with stomach-knotting pockets of silence and doom. Although Berg only hints at the racial undercurrents the book illuminated, a dinner party where Gaines is confronted by bigoted fans is excruciating. And the movie's bittersweet heart is the relationship between a fumble-prone tailback (Garrett Hedlund) and an abusive, alcoholic father who wields his Permian championship ring from way-back-when as a veritable weapon. (Country singer Tim McGraw, bravely taking off his Stetson and revealing the bald spot we all knew was there, plays the bad dad with a convincing mix of rage and reluctance.)
When it comes to the action on the field, however, the movie explodes like a Technicolor nightmare. Berg smartly blends MTV-style cuts with the slo-mo glory of those vintage NFL Films: His camera ducks and weaves, herks and jerks, and the quick-cut edits are smoothly synchronized with each bone-breaking tackle -- hits that are amped up with a tinnitus-inducing pow. The game footage is breathtaking but exhausting. In fact, forget the large popcorn and just order an oxygen tank.
Bissinger's book succeeded partly because the Panthers do, in fact, have an unforgettable season, but for reasons both jubilant and cruel. It would be unfair to give away too many of the very real twists that befell the Panthers, but let's just say that Luke is a marvel as Boobie, and when the star is forced to contemplate a life without football, his breakdown in the arms of a loving uncle is a heart-wrencher. And sad sack Thornton plays Gaines almost as a victim, letting his woe-is-me eyes do the acting as the Panthers get closer and closer to glory, and his head gets increasingly cluttered with the madness surrounding him. (Thornton's scenes with Black, with whom he worked in "Sling Blade," are especially moving.)
The music might swell a little too loud during the big finish, and a cheeseball coda might threaten the balanced storytelling the movie worked so hard to achieve. But give credit to Berg for keeping Bissinger's all-too-true ending intact. It's a doozy. And if it's not exactly what the Panthers wanted, it's definitely what the obsessed football fans of Odessa deserved.
Friday Night Lights (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for obscenity, sexual content and underage drinking.