Lone Star Cinema: Varsity Blues

Amy Smart, James Van Der Beek & Ali Larter in Varsity Blues

Varsity Blues is truly of its time. When the film was released in 1999, star James Van Der Beek was riding high on his fame from popular teen soap Dawson's Creek. This was the first movie produced by MTV Films, and the soundtrack includes such late '90s hits as Collective Soul's "Run" and the Foo Fighters' "My Hero." Buzz Bissinger's influential book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream had been published nine years previous, but had yet to be dramatized for either the big or small screen.

Filmed in Austin -- as well as Georgetown, Elgin and Taylor -- Varsity Blues follows Mox (Van Der Beek), a high school senior in fictional small-town West Canaan, Texas. He dates his friend's younger sister, Julie (Amy Smart), who works at the Top Notch. He dreams of going to Brown University, and only plays football because his dad makes him. During games, Mox sits on the sidelines reading Vonnegut behind his playbook. Then Julie's brother, game-winning quarterback Lance (Paul Walker), is seriously injured and the evil Coach Kilmer (Jon Voight) calls Mox off the bench.

Yup, Coach Kilmer is despicable. He calls his players names, makes them play after injury, and is just all-out cruel. Mox is even informed by his friend Wendell (Eliel Swinton, who only has about a page of lines in the film) that Kilmer is racist. Kilmer is one of the many characters who never really get fleshed out and depend far too much on stereotype; there's also the slutty cheerleader (Ali Larter), the sex maniac player (Scott Caan), not to mention the more minor characters of the attractive teacher who works the night shift (native Austinite Tonie Perensky), and Mox's younger brother Kyle (Joe Pichler) who is on a spiritual journey of sorts. The only characters who really get to show any growth are Mox and his big pal Billy Bob (Ron Lester).

Story-wise, Varsity Blues is all over the place. So many conflicts! There's Mox versus his overbearing dad ("I don't want your life."), Mox and his team versus Coach Kilmer, Billy Bob versus his troubled health, Mox versus himself after he lets success go to his head, Mox's dad versus Lance and Julie's dad, and more. Despite Van Der Beek's unconvincing accent, this football movie could have been much stronger if the screenplay had a little more focus.

I enjoyed the film more than I expected to, partly because I kept giggling at some of the "serious" parts (see the quote in the above paragraph). I think for nostalgia's sake, and given the fact that people still discuss Ali Larter's wearing a whipped-cream "bikini", Varsity Blues won't be forgotten anytime soon. Just as long as folks look to it more as a '90s pop culture touchstone -- even that may be giving it too much credit -- and not as a landmark movie about Texas football.

Austin-related things I spotted: Guiltless Gourmet chips, Top Notch (as mentioned above) and The Landing Strip. Also!! Jesse Plemons (Landry from TV's Friday Night Lights) appears quickly as Julie and Lance's younger brother Troy.

You can watch Varsity Blues on DVD, Blu-ray and Amazon Instant Video (no cost for Prime subscribers).

[Image via Sky.com]