I love movies. People know this, or at least learn this quickly upon meeting me, and in my many years of ranting about cinema I have been asked countless time "What's your favorite movie?"
Impossible. That answer can not be given. While I do not discount the possibility of having a "favorite" movie, I am always leery of anyone who answers that questions definitively; especially when their answer is a movie less than 5 years old, stars Robert Pattinson, is a Romantic-Comedy, etc.
When people ask me, I usually tell them it's an impossible question, and then encourage them to narrow it down by Genre. Even this presents a challenge but some genres are easier than others. In the playing field of crap that is Romantic Comedy my favorite is, no contest, Notting Hill (caveat: I hate Julia Roberts but the charm of Hugh Grant, the witty banter, and the natural-feeling chemistry of the group dynamic involved with Grant's Character's enterouge make up for her big-mouthed performance).
Favorite sports movie. Friday Night Lights.
Directed by Peter Berg and starring Billy Bob Thornton and Lucas Black, 2004's FNL is a breath of fresh air in a category of copy-cat underdog feel-good auto-screenplays (Did you see Glory Road? Is that the one with Samuel L. Jackson? No, that's Coach Carter. I don't know, I might have seen it). What's more, it's not actually about sports. FNL runs in a similar vein as Disney's Remember The Titans (Racism, not football), except without the cushy life-is-beautiful aftertaste and nostalgic soundtrack (James Taylor and Hayden Panettierre. What are two things I'd like to have more of in my day to day life? Throw in apple pie and make it a value meal).
FNL is gritty, dark, and hard to swallow. Berg shoots the action with a handheld third person presence, giving you the story as though you were just wandering through Odessa Texas on game night. The characters are individual, memorable and relatable, showing both the superficial heroism of High School football gods and the vulnerability of scared 17 years olds.
Derek Luke, at his co-finest (see: Antoine Fisher) envelops himself in Booby Miles. The cocky titanic of a Runningback whose season, and very existence, are cut short by injury. He cleans out his locker, oozing swagger from his pores and immediately breaks down into tears in private, realizing that "[He] can't do nothing but play football."
The foreground is the lead-up to the 1988 Texas State High School Football Championships, but in the subtext we see these tortured youth struggling with loyalty, abuse, racism, acceptance, self-worth and the transitions that come with age as they are reminded over and over again by everyone around them that the most important thing they will ever do is win. Berg uses background radio transmissions to hint at the lopsided priorities in 1988's Texas, where the football coach makes more money than the school principal, and the public opinion that maybe if the athlete's weren't doing "so much darned learning" in school then they could perform better on the field.
In the big game we're rooting for the Panthers. And yet Berg takes the time to show that the only reason we're rooting for them, is because we've been watching them. During halftime of the championship game a player screams "They bleed like we do, they sweat like we do. They did two-a-days, we did two-a-days." And then camera bounces back and forth as both teams kneel, heads bowed hand-in-hand, and recite the lord's prayer.
Still, the most telling moment of FNL is the wrap-up. As the Permian seniors disperse at the end of the season. They chat briefly about missing "the heat" and "the lights" and say their goodbyes while the soft melancholy riff of a guitar plays in the background and Coach Gary Gaines removes their names from the position board in his office. Black's quarterback turns and sees a group of children playing ball near the stadium, he clasps his football in his hands, yells for their attention and lets a pass sail through the air. The music crescendos, the ball drifts through the air, and his name falls from the board onto the pile. One of the boys catches the ball, Coach Gaines begins placing new names on the board, and Black turns, smiles, and gets in his car.
We place so much pressure, and invest so much of our lives into these feats that seems so fleeting. The season ends and on Monday the players go back to school to learn about algebra, to go to the prom, to graduate and go to college or get a job hauling garbage in the one horse town. In the end, is it trivial? Yes. Is it wrong? Maybe. Did it matter? No, and yet at the same time it can't be dismissed.
This is football in Texas in 1988. This is adolescence is Texas in 1988. And it sure makes for a darn good movie. A