Sports' effect on culture is a fascinating study. Whether it be American football in Texas, AFL in Victoria, rugby union worldwide, soccer in assorted nations in Europe & South America, and cricket in the various nations of the British commonwealth - all the players of these games feel the pressure on them by either their state or nation to do well in their sport because for many it's a religion - their only real major escape from the otherwise mundaneness of everyday life.
Peter Berg's "Friday Night Lights" offers an occasionally interesting perspective on all this. Set around the players of Permian High School out in the deserts of West Texas, most of the action simply focuses on the players themselves in the game and their interactions with others who've ladelled them with expectations. It's a interesting look into these kids lives, shot skillfully and with visceral punch, but sadly lacking on emotional heft - especially to those whom the culture is unfamiliar.
A lot of that is due to the sheer amount of characters being dealt with here. We never really get to see their individual stories in great detail, the film opting for a more fly on the wall objective approach that swaps between the players, the coach (a cool-tempered Thornton) and quick cuts to the town's people and their almost mania over the game (a subject repeatedly brought up but never properly explored or criticised).
Better is its portrayal of the young players, thanks mostly to some stellar performances from such a young cast whose characters each have to deal with their own dilemmas. Lucas Black in particular stands out amongst the boys as the self-doubting player concerned over his sick mother. Others like Hernandez and Luke are solid support even though the former barely seems to appear in the film, though one surprisingly good supporting role comes in the form of singer Tim McGraw as Hedlund's twisted father.
The football action is all quite impressive - certainly far more than say that horrid excuse of movie that was "Varsity Blues". The state championship game played in the Houston Astrodome towards the end is a great climax, slickly edited and filled with lots of grunt in a way that really feels like it's portraying the game. Cinematography in the quieter scenes and the general tone of the film takes a few bold chances here and there.
So while the atmosphere is excellent, and the general elements all strong, the film sadly fails to give any real insight or depth in regards to explaining the hows and whys of the near fever over the game and its players. For those into the game already that won't matter and you'll probably love this. For the rest of us, well it's a good-looking and swell take on the phenomenon of high school football in poorer areas of Texas, as a film though it still hasn't seem to have found a firm footing.