Fall. The time of year when school buses first make their rounds, we gawk at the fiery splendor of autumn leaves, and catch a whiff of a delicious apple pie. Ah, fall. The time for… Football!

For a solid three months, from the buzzing big cities to the bleakest of small towns, high school football is king and there is no substitute. In Texas, football is next to godliness for anyone living there. Every store and home is barren, as a whole town will pack a stadium to watch a Friday night game under the bright lights. And in a little destitute spot called Odessa, football is the only hope and salvation energizing people’s survival.

In his latest film, Friday Night Lights, director Peter Berg has done a superb job capturing the unbridled fanaticism and miserable reality described in H.G. “Buzz’ Bissinger’s identically-titled 1990 best seller. It’s obvious that Berg didn’t set out to glamorize but to expose the much-ignored cold realities that sometimes lie outside the game.

The movie is shot in gritty and washed-out tones adding a ghostly look to the previously sun-dried landscape and all of this is backed by a magnificent score provided by Explosions in the Sky. Berg’s picture most times feels like a well-thought out documentary infused with a bright action-packed background. Wobbly handheld shots skillfully get a deeper perspective on the human-interest elements and the football scenes scream out every bit of thundering intensity.

The spotlight is on the Permian Panther high school football team both on and off the field, circa 1988, who are told their “duty is to protect this town”. For the town it’s all about winning, and it better be done right. Both team and coach are heaped with praise for winning, and ostracized for losing. The town simply will not settle for anything less than a fifth State Championship and the town’s obsession also puts a lot of pressure on the coach.

Billy Bob Thornton’s astounding performance as the team’s new coach, Gary Gaines, is most endearing. He turns in a believably cunning performance- Gaines is never perceived as an iron-fisted locker room dictator or a ballyhooing “you-can-do-it” motivator. In well-timed moments, Thornton delivers sympathetic fatherly emotions and in others he gives passionate sermons, all steeped in truthful advice as to the way life moves. Audiences see a cool insight to the coach’s mannerisms from his awkward grins when the town adores his efforts to his jaw-clenched anger when they berate him to the unwavering sternness he possesses when his lawn is littered with “For Sale” signs after a heartbreaking early season loss.

But the rest of the players wrestle with certain demons too. Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, who shined opposite Thornton in Sling Blade(1996)), is the team’s reserved quarterback who can’t figure why he plays football, but has dreams of leaving Odessa. The boisterous Boobie Miles (Derek Luke from Antwone Fisher (2002)) is a “you-know-I’m-a-star” running back whose NFL-probable career comes to a bone-crunching end and the tail back (Garrett Hedlund) is weighed down by two big problems. He can’t hold onto to the ball and he can’t escape the shadows of his father. And it’s funny how country music stars and Billy Bob movies seem to have a convincing relationship. Just as Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade, singer Tim McGraw is surprisingly good in a supporting Oscar-worthy performance as an alcoholic father whose ghosts of his past football glories continue to haunt him.

Most of the film plays out as you think; it doesn’t show predictability but you know where the team is headed. Every game is of some importance as the boys scramble for the ultimate showdown in the midst of the football heartland.

Friday Night Lights delves into the human psyche, touching upon the subtlety of racial and economic discord as well as the conflict and desperation of a football loving community. It is a stark believable realism that is hinged on the sweat and tears of the team. And in one compelling scene, when Miles weeps uncontrollably over his broken knee, and even more shattered football-driven life, Berg does well to show that life can quickly get torn apart and left vulnerable when faced with adversity.

Friday Night Lights carries much of the same low-rhythm of Bogdanovich’s small-town Texas tale, The Last Picture Show (1971) and the frenetic football pace of Varsity Blues (1999). This may very well be the best football flick ever made, and even rivals the best of all other sports films. Director Berg triumphantly leads a winning team in this spirited winner. Ah, fall. Ain’t this season grand?

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