(PG-13) 4 stars
Cliché is elevated by a remarkable sense of verisimilitude in this gritty, rousing and occasionally touching chronicle of the 1988 season of the Permian High Panthers of Odessa, Texas, where football is held with the same reverence Hoosiers reserve for basketball. You will not need to be a fan of the sport to appreciate the film. Director Peter Berg, inspired by the H.G. Bissinger book, gets all the details right. You've seen all the subplots before, but my, oh my, does this ever feel like the real deal. The whole cast is top notch, with Billy Bob Thornton at his best. And check out singer Tim McGraw as the verbally abusive father - the man can act! Since the focus of the movie is football and its effect on everything, we only get to know a few people. Coach Gary Gaines (Thornton) has got a Zen thing going on. He gets angry, raging when necessary, but there is something in his eyes that reveals his inner calm. He is centered, with his wife, Sharon (Connie Britton), whether dealing with the menacing inflection of the more powerful men in town or walking out the morning after a loss to see "for sale" signs on his front lawn.
The whole offense is built around gifted running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), a facile kid who knows - knows! - that he is going to be a football star. For him and his devoted Uncle L.V. (Grover Coulson), it will be their ticket out of poverty. When he injures his knee on the first game of the season, he and L.V. must decide whether to follow doctor's instructions and let it heal, or jump back into the most crucial season of his life.
Meanwhile, tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) struggles as much with his father as with the ball. Charles (Tim McGraw, and again - this man was born to act) was a star player for the Panthers and he expects his son to do the same, hovering in the background when he isn't in his son's face shouting. Dad drinks, too, and Don has to deal with the aftermath.
Too little time is spent with tight end Brian Chavez (Crazy/Beautiful's Jay Hernandez, who deserves meatier roles), the rare kid smart enough to earn a scholarship from his grades; third-string running back Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young), tossed into a high-profile position with the team when he has to sub for Booby; and quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), whose ailing mom drills plays with him over meals.
Right after seeing Friday Night Lights, I came home and ordered the book. It's that kind of movie.