Saturday, 22 April 2006

Friday Night Lights (DVD) (2004)

Why make it look like a documentary if you’re not going to tell it like it was?

In the economically-depressed small town of Odessa, Texas, the Permian High School is the foremost football high school and its Permian Panthers team, the darling of the townspeople. Friday Nights Live chronicles the team’s failed championship bid in the 1988 season, and offers a peek at what it’s like to live in a town obsessed with football and how it feels to have the hopes of thousands of grown-ups pinned on a group of 17-year-olds.

There is much to be said about the feel of the film, which is achieved by the copious use of jerky handheld cameras, close up shots that have faces taking up half your screen, over the shoulder angles that leave the other half of the screen covered by the back of some actor’s head, and amateurish fast panning and constant zooming in and out on moving characters. Yes, the film looks and feels like a documentary, and this will set it apart from the hundreds of sports movies generated by Hollywood so far.

While looking like a documentary, Friday Nights Live still manages to play like a typical zero to hero sports team film, complete with standards like a hard-hitting but caring coach, players tackling their own egos, family relations, career-threatening injuries, psychological blocks, and performance anxiety. In fact, by the final third of the movie, you wonder why the director, his director of photography, and their editor bothered to create the documentary feel, given the overdramatic and predictable build-up to the championships and a high-scoring game that won’t be decided until the final second of the match.

Why make it look like a documentary if you’re not going to tell it like it was? Odessa was a huge town, numbering more than 100,000 people, and Permian is one of the only two large-scale schools there. The Permian Panthers lost to the Carter High School team in the semi-finals, not the finals, and it was a low-scoring affair. Instead, little touches in the film hint at the different and more superior path it could’ve taken – the townspeople are obsessed to the point of freakishness, pressuring coach and players to deliver results, while senior community leaders and backers of the team continue to wear rings commemorating their participation in previous championship-winning Panther teams, back in their heyday.

An excellent sports documentary could’ve been made from this material. After all, Tim McGraw’s abusive local football legend character bitterly tells his underperforming athlete son that this will be the highest point in his life: “This is the only thing you're ever gonna have.” There’s something vastly interesting about people who think their lives will stop counting after their final high school college game, or people who need to experience the rest of their empty, meaningless, post-high school lives through the performances of 17-year-olds.

What kind of cultural desert, what kind of poverty-stricken economic wasteland, what kind of town would produce a people who put their young sons under such relentless and unhealthy pressure? This film is based on the original non-fiction book of the same title, which asked these questions and offered a sociological look at the income gap, racism, segregation and desegregation, and poverty in Odessa. That book created a hugely negative reaction from Odessa residents when it was released. This film, however, asks no hard questions and pleases crowds with a dramatic fairytale “little team that could” narrative that is at odds with its documentary style and the original material. Whether you like Friday Night Lights or not will depend on what you prefer – sports/social documentary or sports drama.

DVD extras

The most important extra is “The story of the 1988 Permian Panthers”, which catches up with the present-day lives of the main characters in the book and film. Some of the deleted scenes show just how bizarre and freaky Odessa residents can get in their obsessive support of the home team – I wish there were some way to work these into the film, to give it a more realism. The audio commentary with the director and writer is very informative, with Berg and Bissinger taking turns to quiz each other on the artistic choices made in the jump from book to film script, as well as the historical background of the story.

First published at incinemas on 21 April 2006

No comments: