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by Ed Symkus

Football matters in Odessa, Texas. I mean, really matters, as in the dreams of an entire town center upon whether or not the Permian Panthers are winning or losing.

Based on the H.G. Bissinger book about the intense 1988 season, Friday Night Lights first focuses on all the light fixtures illuminating the huge state-of-the-art stadium incongruously placed in the middle of this dreary, scrub-filled part of the world. The film initially takes on the feeling of a documentary, with a rapid-fire, jagged series of looks at the players and the coaches, zooming in on them on the first day of preseason practice.

Two figures stand out right away: head coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) and running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke). Gaines is a focused man who's seen early on addressing his team, not with a pep talk, but with some common-sense information. "We are in the business of protecting this town," he says calmly to his young, eager charges. He's talking about the town's oversized sense of pride, which, as both players and coaches know, had better not get bruised.

Boobie is a whole different story, with a radically different approach to the game. There's nothing calm about him. He has a huge reputation behind him for being a great player, and he's not afraid to use his big mouth to crow about it -- oddly referring to himself in the third person.

Those two are polar opposites as far as temperaments go. And there are plenty of other personality types who make up the cast of real characters here. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is a level-headed kid who's as concerned with the game as he is worried about the fragile emotional state of his mom. Tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) can't put enough concentration on his slippery hands because his drunk, former Panther father (country singer Tim McGraw, in a terrific, forceful acting debut) has so much invested in his own football past, he's ruining the father-son relationship.

In fact, relationships form the core of the movie. All kinds of them. Besides that father-son one, there's a much more positive one between an uncle and a nephew, one between the coach and the team, an underplayed hint of a happy one between the coach and his wife, and a variety of the ones going on with each player and his own mind.

The film is also very much about so many -- too many -- of the men around town who, like Don's father, once played for the Panthers and are still living their lives through them. Sometimes this paints a sad picture of these guys who never managed to escape the dull little town. But sometimes their frustrations make them almost villainous. There's great cheer in their voices when they repeatedly say to the high schoolers, "Gonna win state? Gonna win state?" But there's more than a hint of threat in the same voices when they pull the coach aside and say, very firmly, "Let's get out there and get it done."

The coach remains calm, only losing his temper if his players -- admittedly under an unreasonable amount of pressure -- flub badly on the field. Because that pressure is on them all the time, it's frustrating to hear the thoughtless adults urging them onward. So there's a wonderful feeling of relief when tight end Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) says to a couple of his pals, "We have to lighten up. We're only 17."

One reason the film works so well as a whole is that besides some really exciting action sequences on the field, there's also a great deal of insight about what happens to young minds when things go very wrong -- football players are prone to bad injuries. And pretty much everything about the movie stays gritty, remaining clear of any Hollywood glitz.

Of course, these kinds of films usually lead up to a "big game." This one is no exception, but every game before that one feels just as big when it's being played. And when viewers' minds are taken off the wildness of all that fast editing and jumpy cameras, they're given a hefty amount of character development, nicely drawn up by the writers and expertly followed through on by the actors. For those who still doubt his acting abilities, let's just say this: Give a well-crafted speech to Billy Bob Thornton and he will deliver.

The last half hour consists of actors and director hitting one perfect beat after another. During that time, the film never takes a breath; it's even hard to catch one while watching it. There's a tremendous emotional release at the very end -- followed by a couple more. Even those who know how the real story turned out might be caught a little off-guard. Good endings to movies are elusive. This is a great one.

Publication date: 10/07/04

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