For some sports are a religion, and nowhere is that cliché better explored on film than through Brian Robbins’ 1999 ode to high school football Varsity Blues.
This is the story of West Canaan High School benchwarmer Jonathan Moxon (Dawson Creek’s James Van Der Beek), who spends more time reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five than his playbook until his friend and team quarterback Lance Harper (a pre-Fast and the Furious Paul Walker) is injured and Moxon is forced into the spotlight under the dictator-like tutelage of legendary Texas coach Bud Kilmer (John Voight).
But, like any good sportsball movie, Varsity Blues is about much more.
Sure there are the stereotypes of the perpetually horny redneck receiver (Scott Caan), the obese mountain of a manchild lineman (the late Ron Lester) and the promiscuous cheerleader (Ali Larter), but we also get insightful minor characters such as Moxon’s doting-but-level-headed girlfriend (Amy Smart), a black athlete who must circumvent institutional racism (Eliel Swinton), and even some comic relief in the form of Mox’s younger brother (Joe Pichler) trying on spiritual garb in his pre-teen search for enlightenment.
The athletic prowess on display as Coach Kilmer and company chase both a perfect season and a state title vies for the audience’s attention as the drama on and off the sidelines begins to consume Moxon and he is tempted to indulge in the trappings of small-town fame, but director Brian Robbins deftly cuts the balletic action to a rousing late-’90s soundtrack featuring songs from the Foo Fighters, Green Day and AC/DC to keep everyone focused on the game. To his credit, he also briefly explores the neglected issues of peer pressure, teen substance abuse, premarital sex and even thoughts of suicide without his narrative ever becoming too preachy.
Varsity Blues is a crowd-pleasing, R-rated look at an institution that gears up every fall and grinds up young men in their prime without much regard to their welfare in return, but it also has a lot of heart.
I was not much of an athlete in my formative years (the closest I got was playing two seasons of varsity soccer, or “faggot football” as the jocks at my school called it), but even the jaded adult in me gets a little misty when Moxon rallies his team with an inspirational speech that defines what it means to play organized team sports.
Just watch this and you will see what I mean:
Van Der Beek is rocking a ridiculous dye job in this film, and his Texas accent is at times comical (“Ah do nawt want yer life!” has become both a mantra and a punchline for teenagers having to endure oppressive parents). Also, none of the football players look like they are in their teens, but for me this is what sportsball movies really are about: rooting for the underdog and taking whatever you need from the film to be the hero of your own story.
Plus, you get to see a cheerleader model a whipped cream bikini:
It is all silly fun with an underlying message that is as honest as it is stereotypical, but even if you never picked up a pigskin Varsity Blues makes you understand what playing on a team and winning feels like.
Let’s all go out there and be heroes, if just for one film.
Directed by Brian Robbins
MPAA rating: R for strong language throughout, sexuality and nudity, and some substance abuse
Running Time: 144 minutes
Celluloid Scoreboard: ‘A’ for being the best high school football movie for people who hated high school and/or football.