It’s a Friday night in West Texas and the town is empty. Stores are closed; nobody is home and the streets abandoned. An eerie drive through the small town will show not much more than signs reading “closed for game”. The whole town has filed into the stadium that is as big as the city itself. It’s in this stadium where teenagers are treated like gods and the mood of the whole town lives and dies on each play. If you’re thinking “Friday Night Lights” set in Dillon, Texas, I don’t blame you but I’m describing West Canaan and the predecessor, Varsity Blues.
January 15th marked twenty years since we were introduced to the West Canaan Coyotes as they head towards their 23rd division title. Armed with a legendary coach, talent all around the field, and lead by a star, FSU bound Quarterback, it seems as if nothing could stop these teenagers from becoming the legends this town bred them to be. After their star goes down with an injury their whole season starts to spiral out of control.
Painted by Nostalgia
Like most men around my age, I have fond memories of Varsity Blues, and for good reason. It’s an almost mythological story about high school football. Its glorification of both sport and athlete aid to its appeal. This is everything that America loves about football. The violence, sex, and fame that can come from the game are front and center and it’s easy to become enamored by it. This was especially true for me, a high schooler in the early 2000s when I was first introduced to the film. Watching high school kids depicted as heroes for playing a game is alluring and that drew me in. The presentation of deeper themes painted my memory of the film to be strong and thoughtful.
The legend of Varsity Blues grew in my head as the plethora of high school and college football films continued to pop up. The influence of the film was undeniable on those that followed. The idea of not just telling a story about a sport but of the people separate of the sport, the whole town or what the sport means, became something of common place in this subgenre of film. “Friday Night Lights” may be its most direct influence. The previous correlation aside, “Friday Night Lights” has some similar plot points and themes about small town football. The impact of Varsity Blues is undeniable and quite impressive.
Football is Very Different Now
While all of this nostalgia is great I couldn’t help but feel some uneasiness throughout my rewatch. The film seemed to have aged way beyond twenty years, which speaks to what makes the film now so problematic. Twenty years are a long time, especially for a movie about football. Football has become a lot more complicated in the past twenty years. A strong push to make the game less violent and knowledge of its effects has greatly changed the perception of the game, especially in regards to its violence. Hits that would once be praised and celebrated are now criticized and condemned. It’s these same hits that are depicted in the film with the same regard they once had. At the time this was a great element of the film. I remember the excitement and joy, as a teenager, that come over me with each bone crushing hit. Twenty years later that joy and excitement was replaced by uneasiness because now these hits cannot be separated from the altered and painful life that comes with them.
It’s impossible for a film to prepare for social changes and trends in this manner; it’s also somewhat unfair to expect a film to do so considering how radically football has changed. This is what makes these anniversaries so complicated. Varsity Blues is a film that is very much of its time. While the things that are now problematic should never be excused, it’s understandable that they would be present in Varsity Blues. During the late 90’s football was about the big hits and it became a glamorized aspect of the sport. No one foresaw the change of perception and unfortunately for my rewatch the change of perception did take away some of my enjoyment from the film.
Complicated but Fun
Outside of the messy football stuff, Varsity Blues still worked for me. I found all of its melodrama to be fun and very entertaining. It was ridiculous and over the top in all of the right ways. When it comes together properly it makes for an enjoyable experience. This all starts with the cast. While a high school football movie starring James Van Der Beek may bring about some pause, the cast worked well together. The players, Mox (Van Der Beek), Lance Harbor (Paul Walker), Billy Bob (Ron Lester) and Tweeder (Scott Caan) needed to be likable and fun. You have to want to root for these kids and this team. Whether it’s running trick plays in practice, stealing a police car or seeing their teacher at a strip club, these kids are having fun, which allows you to have fun. That fun is really what this film is about.
Self-awareness is another important element in a fun movie experience. Sometimes films can take themselves too serious, which ends up being a detriment to the film as a whole. Then there are times when a film knows what it is and leans into it. The latter is Varsity Blues. It is aware of its melodrama and it leans all the way into it. This makes the whole experience all the better. Whether it be slow camera pans to reveal a player in his triumphant glory or “My Hero” swelling just as Billy Bob scores the climatic touchdown. Embracing these as ridiculous and campy allows the film to be the fun time that it should be.
Any film worth mentioning twenty years after its release has to have its fare share of iconic moments. Varsity Blues has plenty of these to spare. The film still lives on in the consciousness of many simply because there are scenes so iconic that the film can never be forgotten. The most iconic of these scenes has to be the whip cream bikini. This scene has become synonymous with the film itself, so much so that it’s easy to forget just how ridiculousness of that entire scene. Either way Ali Larter created a memorable moment in her film debut and has since carved out a pretty solid career.
Mox is the through line in the film’s most memorable scenes. He was in the scene I just mentioned and he was the main focus of the second most iconic scene, his halftime speech. This speech is everything that is so fun and great about Varsity Blues. They had just got their coach to quit and just when all hope is lost, Mox steps up to deliver the speech of his life and it works so well. Every great sports movie has a great speech and this was that for Varsity Blues.
It Still Works
Twenty years later, Varsity Blues still works. It’s problematic at times and shows its age but in the end it’s still a lot of fun. Someone just being introduced to the film now may have a harder time with it. My rewatch was driven by nostalgia and because of that I was able to recapture most of the fun I had as a younger person watching it. That fun is why the film works. It isn’t overly good, from a filmmaking standpoint and isn’t nearly as deep as it could (or probably should) be. Sometimes it’s good to just have fun and for someone who grew up in the 90s this is that in all the right ways.
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