As it stands, I don’t mind football, but I don’t think I have the rabid, all-consuming obsession with the sport that might be required to get the most from this film.
Directed by Peter Berg (Very Bad Things), Lights is the true story of the Permian Panthers, a West Texas high-school football team from the blue-collar town of Odessa, as they pursue the state championship in 1988. Led by Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), the team features assorted players of varying skill levels, from the egomaniacal Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), to the perpetually stressed Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) and fumbly fingered Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), who goes home to his alcoholic, abusive father (Tim McGraw) every night.
Unlike other sports movies about underdog teams vying for a championship of some kind, Lights is more about the maniacal football culture of this small town. It’s all anyone cares about, and their fervent following of every play, every down and every point scored borders on psychotic. These people live, breathe, eat, sleep and poop high-school football, all day, every day of the season. Coach Gaines even has his life threatened as a way of “motivating” him to lead the team to victory. Evidently, the residents of Odessa believe that (in no particular order) beatings, intimidation, bribery and passionate fans will help light the winning fire.
All this is fine and good but, as my movie-going pal said to me on the way out of the screening, “So, what’s the point of the movie?” I tried to explain that it’s about life in small-town America, and how people pin all their hopes on things like being gridiron stars because there’s nothing else open to them. He said, “Yeah, but why did they make the movie about this team?” As I rambled on and tried to find an answer, I found myself wondering the same thing.
As far as sports movies go, this one’s fine. But not exceptional. It’s too consciously aware of itself, and how gritty and earnest it’s trying to be, that it forgoes subtlety entirely. There are countless shots of barren landscapes and oil pumps and dilapidated houses. We get it. Odessa is a middle-of-nowhere town with nothing to offer its youth. There are countless clips of on-the-field action, players being pummeled and bloodied and beaten to a pulp. We get it. Football ain’t pretty and these boys willingly put themselves through the wringer in pursuit of their dreams. And the music is so freakin’ LOUD that I wondered if the theater’s sound system was malfunctioning. We get it. Football’s in your FACE, sucker! In smaller amounts, these things would have been fine. Great, even. But they’re so plentiful that they become tiresome.
Though the film may be lacking in its storytelling or execution, it soars thanks to some stellar performances. Thornton reins it in nicely to play a guy whose shoulders bear the weight of the hopes and dreams of everyone in his town. He’s not in it for the glory, he’s in it for the kids. At the other end of the spectrum is McGraw, who unleashes his inner psychopath to create an appropriately frightening figure. And, as far as the boys go, Lucas Black stands out, thanks to his multi-layered performance.
Again, I have a feeling football fanatics will be rapturously off and running with Lights. But, for me, its borderline-obnoxious, testosterone-laden, fairly straightforward story just left me wanting more.