It is 1988, and in the small town of Odessa, Texas, football is a religion. For the local high school team, the Permian High Panthers, their only goal is to win the state championship, which the locals are feverishly counting on. Led by Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), the Panthers (including a fantastic Lucas Black) struggle though a difficult season that finds the seniors facing the realities of their bleak lives crashing into the heroic fantasy of the game, as personal problems at home threaten to eat them alive.
"Friday Night Lights" (IMDb listing) promotes itself as the "real" story behind small town football; a tale that has been told numerous times in the past five years, including outright disasters ("Varsity Blues," "Remember the Titans") and an authentic look inside the pressure cooker life of a Midwestern football Mecca ("Go Tigers!"). "Lights," adapted from the non-fiction book by H. G. Bissinger, is rooted in true-life hopes and dreams. But once director Peter Berg gets his claws into the story, all it resembles is typical sports movie drivel.
Football is a contact sport, and every director who tries to tackle the subject feels it is their own personal challenge to provide the audience with an honest portrayal of the game's brutalities. Berg, limping from his overdirected actioner "The Rundown," is no different. "Lights" only diverts narrative tedium when the gladiators take the field; effectively drowning out the nonsense that eventually takes place off the field. Amped up with period Public Enemy and Stooges songs (plus a little nu-metal thrown in for no logical reason), Berg goes to war with the football sequences, covering every crash of the helmets and snapping twist of the knee. "Lights" is a chaotic film, and in a crippling move, Berg has elected to capture the action with heavy editing and continuous use of zooms, which forms a blurred, nonsensical picture of the action. If anybody had a problem with the blitzkrieg editing and handheld approach taken in last summer's disappointing "Bourne Supremacy," I would suggest staying far away from "Lights."
When Berg also employs his jumbled camerawork off the field, it becomes clear why the filmmaker has chosen such a dreadful, meaningless aesthetic. While very proud of its roots in reality, "Lights" plays out with every last cliche imaginable. We have the drunk, abusive, lost childhood father (played by a please-stick-to-singing Tim McGraw), the arrogant, but accident-prone African-American star player (a good Derek Luke), the time-bending, come-from-behind victory, and various incarnations of the loving, stern taskmaster coach who is feeling the heat from the local residents to win the big game. No wonder Berg can't stand to let a shot play out for more than three seconds. I wouldn't either. Seeing a static second of this formulaic tale would break the illusion that it all means something. But do we really need snap zooms and rapid fire editing when we watch the boys eats fries at a restaurant?
What is left of the story (we don't even know Gaines has a daughter until the 80-minute mark!) is casually tossed away for the final championship game. By this time, Berg hasn't earned the audiences' sympathy for any of the barely-met players. The relationships between them that are difficult to understand. The power of the championship moment cannot be denied, and Berg plunges headfirst into the game with the same tenacity (and dizzying camerawork) he's shown before, but there's a hallow, empty feeling. That feeling comes when "Lights" assumes its football scenes alone are enough to get the emotional resonance of the story from point A to B. That's assuming far too much.
Filmfodder Grade: D+