In the distant land of Texas, fall means football, where fans pack one hundred thousand seat stadiums on a weekly basis to proudly proclaim that their team is back as they gear up for another season of mediocrity. But if you head west, to Odessa, you won’t find major college powerhouses or massive NFL franchises. Instead, you will find the most competitive high school football town in America, and the pressure is on the players of Permian High School to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and bring another championship trophy to Odessa.
Friday Night Lights, which was released in 2004 by director Peter Berg, follows the sports movie formula, which may be a benefit to how enjoyable it is but hurts it on a critical level. It has all the classic tropes, like sneaking into the playoffs and cruising to the final, the star player getting injured and the backup underdog taking their spot and thriving, and a few players having domestic issues that usually get resolved once the team starts winning. All of these clichés make the film watchable but make it feel much less original.
The film’s protagonist is head coach Gary Gaines, who will lose his job if he doesn’t make the playoffs. Under pressure from administrators and boosters, Gaines is able to sneak into the playoffs on a coin toss—who didn’t see that coming? Once into the postseason, the movie decides it will introduce some extremely unnecessary racism about the brutal powerhouse team Dallas Carter. Dallas Carter is meant to be unstoppable, with a number of Division I commits who are there to destroy you. The Permian coaches and players warn each other of how Carter’s all-Black squad will play rough to get what it wants. In fact, the film won’t shut up about stereotypical racist tropes and the all-Black, physical, rough and dirty powerhouse team that needs to be destroyed. Even Gaines himself, in a motivational speech to his team says “…Dallas Carter, they’ll take your homes. They’ll burn ’em down. They’ll eat your dogs. Dallas Carter will wreck you—and that’s a fact.”
The film really succeeds when it focuses on Odessa. It was fascinating and terrifying to see the lengths to which people will go for high school football in Texas. Players are pushed by their parents, friends and even the media to win a championship. Gaines is threatened by everyone around him about the future of his career if he doesn’t succeed, and fans pack the stands every Friday night to overreact to Permian’s performance. (Also, why does Permian play so many home games?) You watch these scenes in complete shock, because you know it’s real. It even messes with the minds of big football fans to know that they’re people who care that much about football.
The character work is above average. All of the players have some kind of emotional problem that fits the story and setting of the film. From devastating injuries to daddy issues, these troubles make a movie that revolves around such an unfamiliar place feel more relatable. The movie does an excellent job of making the audience feel the pressure that Coach Gaines’ is under, which also helps the audience connect to the film.
Berg’s directing work is stylistic but doesn’t add much benefit to a film that’s famous for its story. The quick cuts and choppy camerawork at times are headache inducing and unnecessary, but at other times it fabulously adds to the tension and helps develop the feeling of the film. If you’re not in the mood for a fast paced sports flick, this isn’t the film for you, but if you want a classic, entertaining film this just might satisfy you.
Overall, Friday Night Lights’ character development and famous story make it a must-see for football fans, but it is severely lacking in originality and well-executed direction which severely damages its critical appeal. The oddly terrifying setting just adds to the already long list of things that make Texas terrible, and the film confirms what you already knew…living in Texas seems awful—except maybe on Friday nights.