Not deep in the heart of Texas, but somewhere off to the side, the city of Odessa has a ranching museum, a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, an economy tied to a dried-up oil industry, and the most successful high-school football team in state history. Looking for a place where he could learn how to understand high-school football and the obsessive culture surrounding it, Pulitzer-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger settled in Odessa to watch the Permian Panthers try to turn 1988 into another championship season. Panthers fans refer to the team simply as "Mojo," as if it were more a force of nature than a bunch of kids. In a sense, they're right: A lot more than bragging rights rides on the Panthers' games, and the disappointment of a loss lasts longer than the night.
Adapting Bissinger's book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream, director and co-writer Peter Berg doesn't have space to delve into Odessa's sociological complexities, but he gets a lot done in the space he has. In a telling early scene in his film Friday Night Lights, two players sit by a hamburger stand, where a scraggly drunk first treats them like rock stars, then half-threateningly admonishes them to "bring it home," then shows them the state-championship ring on his hand. Apart from the love of the game, the Panthers play both out of duty to Odessa and for the chance to leave it via a college scholarship.
Berg taps into those contradictions, drawing the spirit of his film from the mix of exuberance and dread accompanying each contest. Fierce on the sidelines and taciturn elsewhere, Billy Bob Thornton plays Panthers coach Gary Gaines as a man whose intense focus has forced him to close off whole parts of himself. He bristles at a rich patron's casual racism and the abuses heaped on sensitive first-stringer Garrett Hedlund by his Mojo-alum dad (country singer Tim McGraw, in an assured acting debut), but quickly puts them in the "things I cannot change" file.
In time, Friday Night Lights reveals that thick skin to be a vocational necessity. When the Panthers lose, the fans don't just spit venom during call-in shows; they plant "For Sale" signs on Thornton's lawn. His tender side mostly shows during his dealings with team star Derek Luke. Decked out in a Public Enemy jacket and acid-wash jeans, Luke carries the hopes of his team, his uneasily integrated town, and his hard-working uncle squarely on his swaggering shoulders, until a devastating injury takes him off the field and into a different future. Committed to finding out what happens after the stands clear out, the film follows him all the way.
Berg doesn't avoid formula touches, but he keeps them at arm's length. Staying true to the journalistic spirit of his source (perhaps in part because he's Bissinger's cousin), Berg keeps his camera working at ground level, letting the tension of the action on the field build from what happens off it. At times, the film cries out for a director's cut—some stories get short service. But when Friday Night Lights gets to the big games, the time it's spent creates an atmosphere thick with tension, one akin to the real-world experience of watching a favorite team play for its life. It also keeps sounding a faint, insistent counterpoint that makes the film truly exceptional: the never-answered question of why caring has to hurt so much, and whether it might be better if no one cared at all.