The obsessive importance of the team to the town is everywhere evident, from the small children following team star Booby Miles around (all clad in Permian jerseys with Miles' number), to the signs on every business in town on game night proclaiming "Gone to the Game," to the unsolicited play-calling advice boosters and other citizens force upon Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton.) And the fact that literally everyone is constantly asking the big question: "Are you going to win State?"
Also part of the atmosphere is the pressure put on the kids (after all, they are still kids, even the seniors) by coaches, classmates, neighbors and (above all) parents. They are expected to perform no matter what their personal problems might be. A seriously ill mother or an alcoholic and abusive father are no excuse for even a partial lack of focus on the gridiron. Most of these kids see the team as their only road to a college education, and thus a chance to get the hell out of Odessa. In a revealing moment, two players tell a third that he has it made even if they lose, because at least he has the grades - implying that the rest of them don't.
Or perhaps the rest have grades, but not meaningful ones. Another revealing moment comes when star running back Miles, being interviewed by so many reporters that you'd think he was in the NFL, is asked about his grades and answers, "I get straight A's - I play football." The downside of this all-too-common phenomenon is highlighted when Miles suffers a serious injury, and suddenly realizes that, without football, he has nothing to fall back on.
The town also looks the other way when students drink, and in fact encourage it, to the somewhat creepy point of thirty-year-olds inviting high school kids to keg parties.
The special treatment, however dubious, is secondary to the main story, a classic Cinderella story in which Thornton's small-town team makes a run towards the state playoffs and a possible shot at the title. I'm glad I did not know how things turned out in real life (the season in question was 1988) because the movie does an excellent job at keeping up the mystery - once the team has lost a game, the playoff shot is in doubt, and the suspense just keeps building as the season progresses. And you really want these kids to win - you become a fan of the team.
The football action itself is excellent - gritty, hard-hitting, exciting and realistic, if perhaps a tad too polished for a high school team (even a good one.) But it is among the best ever seen on the big screen.
Thornton does a good job portraying the embattled coach, upon whom the town's hopes fall and who is subject to the kind of second-guessing usually reserved for the pros. Not to mention verbal abuse, in person and on radio, when the team loses (though I must admit that the plethora of "for sale" signs placed on his lawn after the first team loss is hilarious.) And Thornton's halftime speech in Permian's biggest game of the season is fantastic. Tim McGraw is effective and believable as the abusive father of one of the players, despite the seemingly limited range of facial expression he displays (or so it seemed to me. In any case, he has more facial range than Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris, at least.) But the real stars of the movie are the actors portraying the players themselves - all are quite good.
About the only thing that I found somewhat "Hollywood" was the instant reconciliation between McGraw and his son, once the latter (who has had a problem all season with fumbling) has a great final game. I love football - I miss playing it, though my knees don't - but the concept of one key "big game" performance canceling out a culture of abuse doesn't sit well with me, and seems far-fetched. (Relatives of the father/son in question have posted on the boards saying that the two have always had a good relationship, and that the abuse was grossly exaggerated if not invented outright. Which certainly supports my "Hollywood" view of this aspect.)
But overall, this is a marvelous film for anyone that enjoys football, and even, I'd wager, for those that don't. It's well-worth your money and time.