I went to high school at Servite in Anaheim, California, which was about as football crazy as a school gets in Southern California. Football crazy in California, however, is to football crazy in Texas as Presbyterians are to Pentecostals. This movie is about a little town in West Texas where, if the Second Coming happened on any given Friday night during the fall, the locals would likely say to Jesus, “Hold your horses there. Don’t You know there’s a football game on?”
Odessa Permian high school has a team that’s a little short on size but confident in their not-so-secret weapon, Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), a hot-shot running back with talent, as they say, on loan from God. As long as Boobie is playing, the other backs just need to be good blockers and the quarterback doesn’t need to worry about passing.
However, during the first game of the season, Boobie refuses to be taken out after building a huge lead late in the game, and on the next play, he blows out his knee. That one injury puts the entire season in doubt as Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) has to make something of his undersize team that he had built around one player. What was supposed to be an undefeated run at the State Championship falls on the shoulders of boys used to playing in the shadow of Boobie Miles. Third-string running back Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) emerges from nowhere. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) has to overcome confidence problems stemming from a bitter, critical father (Tim McGraw) who was himself an Odessa Permian football star. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) has to step into a leadership role while caring for an ailing mother.
The team takes sometime to gell, getting blown out in their second game, but starts to put things together, running off a string of wins against lesser teams. Their real test is against Midland Lee. If Permian wins, they go to the playoffs, otherwise the playoffs will be determined by a coin toss.
Meanwhile, Boobie is doing whatever he can to avoid facing up to the severity of his injury, refusing to believe it could be career-threatening. Football is his only shot, something brought painfully home when we see that this high school senior can barely read the recruiting literature sent to him by colleges.
This film is based on a book by H.G. Bissinger which detailed the 1988 season of the real life Permian Panthers. While the film takes some liberties with the facts of the season, it is an accurate portrayal of how small towns in Texas seem to live and die by the fate of their high school teams. On Friday night, these towns empty out, looking like someone dropped a neutron bomb on Main Street, as everyone is either at the stadium or home listening on the radio. We see how high school players and coaches are put under a media spotlight that the rest of the nation reserves for Division I college teams. A lot of these players come from poor families and a football scholarships may be the only way these kids are going to be able to afford a college education. For them, football is literally life and death, for if they don’t make it, they will live and die in the same circumstances in which they were born.
Billy Bob Thornton gives a multi-layered performance as Coach Gaines, tough but sympathetic, projecting confidence whiles he worries for his job as the wheels threaten to come off their promising season. The rest of the cast are solid even if most of them look too old to be playing high school football.
The film compares favorably to Varsity Blues, another “Texas high school football as religion” flick from 1999. That film let itself be distracted by too much high school soap opera and a two-dimensional martinet of a coach. Friday Night Lights spares us the whipped cream bikini in favor of superior storytelling.