Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Varsity Blues

In West Canaan, Texas a back-up quarterback who cares more about his friends and his Ivy League scholarship than the weekly game gets thrown into the spotlight after the starter goes down. Earning more than three times its budget and holding the #1 spot at the box office for two weeks in January of 1999, Varsity Blues may not have been a runaway hit, but it did well enough to catch interest.

Given the number of over-the-top moments, it's easy to dismiss Varsity Blues as a raunchy teen sports film, but the film does have a bit of heart and a keen eye in its depiction of Texas high school football, over-zealous parents, the pressure on young kids, and the trouble with coaches chasing their legacy at the cost of everything else. 25 years later, released for the first time on 4K, the film has managed to stick around as something of a cult classic.

In his first starring role, riding the success of Dawson's Creek, James Van Der Beek stars as "Mox" who is butting heads with his old school bully of a coach (Jon Voight) long before he steps into the starting line-up. Far from the only face your recognize, we also get Paul Walker as the original staring quarterback who goes down to injury, Amy Smart as Mox's girlfriend, Scott Caan as the hard partying wide receiver, and, in her first film, Ali Larter as a cheerleader with an unique method of serving sundaes. Even if you haven't seen the film, odds are you know about the bikini sundae.

The main conflict of the story is between Mox and Coach Kilmer both for his hard-ass style riding the players long past their breaking points and for several shortcuts he takes in respect to his players physical and mental health, even going so far to blame them for his own mistakes such as forcing a concussed player into action leading to tragedy. Kilmer's a classic bully who finally gets his comeuppance in the final act where our patients take over the asylum in their final game to the glee of the students and the confusion of announcers and fans. Despite his decades of success, there's never a question of who the film's villain is, and the script does offer a short scene at the end of the coach alone in his office to briefly examine the decisions that led him there.

For a film that involves Caan's character driving around naked in a squad car with a group of girls, Ali Larter attempting to seduce the new quarterback with whipped cream, a kid who ties himself to a cross and sits down at the dinner table, and the team taking a trip to a local strip club whose dancers include their Sex Education teacher (Tonie Perensky), it also gets serious in examining the negatives of high school football in a town all-too-willing to look the other way in the alcohol and substance abuse, teen suicide, the ethics of playing with pain, adults with too much power abusing their influence over kids, and the scars of organized sports on children.

Other notable performances include Eliel Swinton as the team's star black running black who the coach rarely lets into the end zone, Joe Pichler as Mox's younger brother (whose wacky antics are one of the film's real misses), and Ron Lester as offensive lineman Billy Bob. The manner which everyone deals with Billy Bob's concussion dates the film a bit, but it also reminds us how sports didn't take such injuries seriously not all that long ago. While mostly used for comic relief, Billy Bob is also given one of the film's most dramatic scenes. Although the word suicide is never spoken aloud, it's obvious to see how things could have turned out different without Mox's intervention.

Varsity Blues isn't a great film, but with its share of rewatchable moments it never seems to struggle to bring in new viewers and bring back fans for another viewing. It's certainly smarter, and smarmier, than most sports movies centered around adolescents. And given that it predates Friday Night Lights by 5 years and the long-running television show by even longer, you have to wonder if they owe at least part of their success, perhaps even their existence, to Varsity Blues.

Watch the trailer
  • Title: Varsity Blues
  • IMDb: link

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