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Salt Lake City Weekly Touchdowns and T&A

By Greg Beacham

JANUARY 25, 1999:  There's something absolutely pathetic about high school sports, even though it's not the kids' fault.

See, youth sports are much more important to the adults watching than the kids playing. Kids would rather be playing pickup ball or stickball and sneaking smokes behind the gym, but parents and coaches truss them up in uniforms, march them onto a field and then yell at the kids when they play like they're not having any fun.

Only in a film can you filter out the shallowness and desperation that drives high school sports and find both a dramatic core and a meaningful ending. That's what MTV, in yet another foray into 90-minute music videos (we call them movies), tries to do in Varsity Blues.

James Van Der Beek, the main character on that WB show you don't watch, is Jon Moxon, the second-string quarterback for the West Canaan Coyotes. He spends his days studying to get into Brown and his afternoons staying out of the way of coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight, with his MenaceMeter set on Humiliate).

When West Canaan's star QB, who's also the brother of Mox's girlfriend, goes down with an inevitable injury, it's up to Mox to lead the Coyotes to victory. Think he might pull it off?

In between, Varsity Blues is a conventional story of faux-idealistic kids who want to get out of their small town and the forces that conspire to keep them there. This road is very rutted and worn-out by now, and the film has nothing new to say, but a fast-paced screenplay and several original comic touches put it a notch above mediocre.

Scott Caan, as overwrought wide receiver Tweeder, makes an interesting shitkicker, and Mox's younger brother, a religious fanatic who can't quite decide which faith to pursue, provides a number of guilty laughs.

Of course, there's also a fair share of the gratuitous nudity and almost-nudity (you know, when they show the actress strategically dressed or from behind so you can't really tell if it's her) that are staples of teen flicks. The plot is strictly cookie-cutter, and the thrills that inevitably follow are so predictable, they might as well install applause signs in the theater and do away with formality.

The trouble with making a movie about the religion that is Texas high school football is that whatever you come up with will fare terribly against the subject's definitive work: H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, the searing 1988 non-fiction book about Odessa Permian High School's team and the community's unhealthy attachment to it.

Many of the themes from Bissinger's book--the electric game-night atmosphere, the adults who never move beyond their high school glory days, the kids who sublimate their parents' lives--are present in Varsity Blues, but there's no emotional grounding to them. The entire film wants to capture in 90 minutes what it took Bissinger 400 pages to explain. You can't do it.

It doesn't help that Varsity Blues is a fairly amateur production. Director Brian Robbins (remember Head of the Class, that TV show with Robin Givens? Robbins played Eric, the Vinny Barbarino-esque kid) lets a couple of old-fashioned boom mike shots in, and he falls in love with choreographed, slow-motion tackles la Everybody's All-American.

There is an elegiac, allegorical film to be made about the culture of high school football. This isn't it. Instead, you should check out these sports films, all of which kick Varsity Blues' ass:

  • Slap Shot (1977): A nearly perfect film that works on so many levels, it's amazing. Paul Newman's ragtag minor-league hockey team's battle to survive is a capitalist allegory, a portrait of 1970s nihilistic uncertainty, perhaps the most authentic (yet satirical) picture of athletic life ever filmed and a cavalcade of brilliant verbal and physical comedy. Long story short, you need to see it.

  • Personal Best (1982): Robert Towne's story of lesbian love in the track-and-field world drew attention for its salacious-by-'80s-standards content, but it's also a complex and graceful romance that's only peripherally about sports.

  • Fear Strikes Out (1957): The story of Jimmy Piersall, a real-life baseball player who suffered from mental illnesses, is sanitized for 1950s protection, but watch between the lines. This is a creepy and subversive, yet oddly touching, story, and it features Anthony Perkins' first major film role.

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