No-nonsense ode to prep football in Texas

by Craig Outhier, Guest Columnist

If you thought Texans were nuts anyway, wait until you get a load of “Friday Night Lights,” director Peter Berg’s no-nonsense ode to prep football in America’s most pigskin-crazy state.

Based on Buzz Bissinger’s best-selling nonfiction book, Berg’s movie chronicles the 1988 Permian High School football season in the economically depressed west Texas town of Odessa. Football is more than a sport here; it commands a zealous devotion that borders on the religious. Over breakfast, starting quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black from “Crazy in Alabama”) memorizes drop-steps and receiver routes with his invalid mother (Connie Cooper). Later, fans bug Winchell for autographs and he grants a photo op to a guy with a mullet. The way primitive cultures used to pray for rain, the good people of Odessa pray for touchdowns.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Permian’s even-tempered head coach, Gary Gaines, who submits himself to a grim routine: After every loss, he flips on a radio call-in show where livid fans call for his job.

Thornton’s scenes with “Sling Blade” co-star Black are mostly limited to butt-slaps and sideline screaming, but they do share one quasi-poignant, dimly lighted moment when Gaines urges Winchell to stand tall in the passing pocket of life.

Permian’s all-consuming drive toward the state championship inspires the best and worst in the townsfolk. Fed up with his son’s chronic fumbling, a deranged has-been father (country music star Tim McGraw) angrily duct-tapes a football to the teenager’s hands. In other stretches, the movie errs toward the ponderous, particularly during Thornton’s impassioned yet banal locker-room speeches.

Berg and co-screenwriter David Aaron Cohen have left certain parts of the book out of the movie — firings, arrests, racism and other tabloidish details — and fudged a little on others; Permian advances further in the playoffs than it did in real life, for dramatic effect.

Berg — the “Great White Hype” actor and “Very Bad Things” director — employs liberal use of handheld cameras to capture the smash-mouth grittiness of it all, and rarely do his actors convey anything but total gridiron obsession. This isn’t the fanciful jock romanticism of “Varsity Blues”; with its ’70s-style fixation on mood and psyche, it feels more like a prep version of “North Dallas 40.”

On the rare occasions when the characters do see past the football fog, the clear-minded contrast makes those scenes all the more powerful. Black is great in the scene where Winchell begs an absentee sibling to come home and help take care of his mother, betraying a hint of helpless longing beneath the buzz cut and muscles.

However, it’s co-star Derek Luke, previously seen in “Antwone Fisher,” who steals the movie as Boobie Miles, the team’s mouthy star running back. In one devastating, brilliantly authentic scene of despair and heartbreak, Miles is forced to contemplate life after football, and is horrified to find no life at all.

Craig Outhier writes for the Orange County Register.