In small-town Texas, high school football is a religion. The head coach is deified, as long as the team is winning and 17-year-old schoolboys carry the hopes of an entire community onto the gridiron every Friday night. In his 35th year as head coach, Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight) is trying to lead his West Canaan Coyotes to their 23rd division title. When star quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) suffers an injury, the Coyotes are forced to regroup under the questionable leadership of John Moxon (James Van Der Beek), a second-string quarterback with a slightly irreverent approach to the game. "Varsity Blues" explores our obsession with sports and how teenage athletes respond to the extraordinary pressures places on them.
This MTV-produced drama only looks like an adaptation of H.G. Bissinger's expert dissertation of the church of high school football, Friday Night Lights
. The energetic, breezy movie has none of the seriousness of Bissinger's book except on its basic level: in West Texas, high school football is life. Into this world comes Jonathan "Mox" Moxon (James Van Der Beek), a brainy, uncharacteristic jock who sits on the sideline reading Slaughterhouse Five
until the West Caanan High School Coyotes All-Texas QB goes down with an injury. Suddenly the spotlight and the tyrannical ways of coach Bud Kilmer (another ace evil turn by Jon Voight) are on Mox and the light is white-hot. There have been several films that show tough, honest kids doing their best against the worst of small-town coaches (Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves
, for one) but Varsity Blues
, in its glossy style, takes a more curious turn: studying what happens when celebrity comes to the well-adjusted high schooler. Mox starts seeing the rewards of stardom: a six-pack under the counter, acceptance in school, even easy sex from the girl who goes after the starting quarterback (Ali Larter). Will Mox win the big game? Will he bend to the wills of his coach? Will he stay with his old girlfriend? The questions are easy enough to answer, but the film has an ace up its sleeve: Van Der Beek has the stuff to carry the movie. Fans of TV's Dawson's Creek
will see a slightly grittier dreamboat here, and Van Der Beek's care with the role makes the most ludicrous parts--including a trip to a strip club--manage a certain aura. --Doug Thomas