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Friday, October 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
Lives ruled by high-school football games

By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times

Derek Luke, left, Billy Bob Thornton, Lee Thompson Young and Lucas Black in "Friday Night Lights."
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Talk about your hurry-up offense. During early scenes in "Friday Night Lights" of a match between the 1988 Permian Panthers football team of Odessa, Texas, and some other high school's varsity squad from the Longhorn State, actor-director Peter Berg all but blows us off the field with a dizzying succession of far-flung perspectives on the game.

A cheerleader's graceful backflip is instantly mirrored by a rotating, bird's-eye view of Odessa's Ratliff Stadium, perhaps shot from a circling helicopter or blimp. Next, we're watching a play from over the shoulder of a stranger midway up the bleachers. Then we see the action on a little television set hollered at by the quarterback's mom, followed by a gut-wrenching close-up on the 40-yard line of a running back blowing out his knee.

Berg, to say the least, has a very lively film on his hands with "Friday Night Lights" — based on a nonfiction book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. Bissinger — about a lesser year in the life of the oft-champion Panthers, jewel of an economically depressed West Texas town.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Friday Night Lights," with Billy Bob Thornton, Tim McGraw, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, Lucas Black, Connie Cooper. Directed by Peter Berg, from a screenplay by Berg and David Aaron Cohen, based on the book "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream" by H.G. Bissinger. Rated PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action. 120 minutes. Several theaters.

Too lively, actually. With all the whooshing, excessive, multiangle coverage of nearly every scene in "Friday Night Lights," Berg's film comes across as a long parade of passing shadows under a bleaching sun, a ghostly echo chamber amplifying the unredeemed misery and quashed hopes of broken-bodied teenage boys. The team's coach (Billy Bob Thornton) has some sage things to say to his players about being masters of their own destinies, but with so much else going on — a spiritual rot among parents and town fathers, broad evidence of racism and more — this film deserves a stronger, unifying theme.

On the other hand, people don't live themes, they live their lives, and Berg certainly has rich character material inspired by those real-life '88 Panthers.

There's the star player (Derek Luke) who crashes to Earth. There's the son (Garrett Hedlund) of a former champion-turned-miserable drunk (Tim McGraw). The aforementioned quarterback (Lucas Black) is distracted by a mentally ill parent (Connie Cooper), and the coach is under constant, implied threat of losing his livelihood.

Each of these narrative lines is worth tracking, but the problem is that they add up to impressions and not a movie. The Panthers' climactic battle for the state championship is Berg's most well-developed and visually coherent sequence, and while it's great action, by itself it doesn't mean much.

Tom Keogh:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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