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‘Varsity Blues,’ filmed in Austin, turns 15 years old

Eric Webb

Quoth the Van Der Beek: “Playing football at West Canaan may have been the opportunity of your lifetime, but I don’t want your life!”

It’s not “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” but it’s something. Sure, everyone is nuts about the Dillon High School Panthers from “Friday Night Lights,” the beloved high school football TV series filmed in Austin. But before Coach Taylor won America’s hearts (and even before the 2004 film version of “Friday Night Lights”), teen gridiron flick “Varsity Blues” rolled its cameras in the Austin area. Starring James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight and Paul Walker, the film was released 15 years ago today.

Former Statesman reporter Olin Buchanan interviewed the film’s producer, Mike Tolin, before filming began in 1999. Tolin had this to say about why the film set up shop in Central Texas:

“There’s no substitute for the real thing. That’s why we’re going to the expense of bringing it to Austin. I don’t think you can capture the mood by shooting in a back lot or a Los Angeles neighborhood, and the studio has been very supportive.”

The film wasn’t the critical darling that “Friday Night Lights” was. “Varsity Blues” is saddled with a 40% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; “Friday Night Lights” the TV show boasts a 100% score on the Tomatometer, and the film version sits pretty at 81%. Indeed, once the film was released, former Statesman film critic Chris Garcia had few kind words:

“Varsity Blues” is not the Texas football movie we’ve been waiting for. It clearly fails to plumb the complex dynamics of communal fervor that propels the native phenomenon, the same patriarchal zealotry that engines the military mindset.”

Regardless, “Varsity Blues” came to town during an era in Austin’s film industry that also included well-known films like “The Faculty, “Office Space” and “Miss Congenality.” For the many Austinites who were extras in the film, it’s at least worth remembering.

Step into the wayback machine, and read the entirety of Garcia’s review below:

The good thing about football movies is that they make the sport actually look interesting. Games are always shown in bursts of pulse-roaring highlights, all the best passes, catches and plastic percussion of tackles glorified, the grinding dead air considerately excised.

Give “Varsity Blues” that much. Pure sports-fantasy hokum, the teen dramedy boasts terrific scenes of high school football shot and edited like eloquent, bone-crunching ballets. They’re the best part of this “Porky’s”-meets-“All the Right Moves”-meets-“Dazed and Confused” hodgepodge.

With a surprisingly light hand, the movie broaches the notion that Texas loves its football. Imagine that. The passion we lavish on the gridiron is a love best left to brave Freudians, but it can’t be ignored. It’s been documented in books like H.G. Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” and derided by people who reside well out of punching range.

Crude, sweet and creakily obvious, “Varsity Blues” takes its football-as-salvation theme seriously, yet tweaks it with the heretical idea that perhaps some of the boys who play the game really do not want to be there.

Perhaps their fathers forced them to play football as a preordained rite of passage. Perhaps they hate and revile their corrupt, cup-busting coach (played by a frothing Jon Voight, who surely snapped capillaries enacting a range of tantrums). And perhaps they have other things on the brain, as does Jonathan Moxon (“Dawson’s Creek’s” James Van Der Beek), who clandestinely reads Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks on the bench as the game roars on.

Poor Mox, as his pals call him, is a placid intellectual at heart, a scrubbed straight arrow who’s unfailingly faithful to his girlfriend (Amy Smart) and submissive to his father’s blandishments that he play football for the school’s Coyotes. Mox’s goal is to graduate with an academic scholarship to Brown University.

To his father’s chagrin, Mox is an abysmal player. That is until his good friend and star quarterback Lance receives a season-killing injury and Mox is hurtled onto the field only to become a superstar player, which, in the fictional Texas farm town of West Canaan, is as big as it gets. But, oh, the pressures of fame.

The ensuing tribulations, of course, mount to a character-defining showdown, in which the heroic teen-agers uproot the hidebound rules of the town’s self-serving adults. Parents are rebuked and a small mutiny puts Voight’s vastly unethical coach in his place.

Evoking a teen-age Matthew McConaughey, Van Der Beek is affably poised as the nice guy with a streak of righteous spunk, and his tight band of cutout buddies — the fat guy, the party animal, et al. — bring a certain verve and sloppy comedy to the show. (Though beware of the mail-order Texas aak-sonts .)

Lackluster director Brian Robbins and formula scripter W. Peter Iliff spritz the angsty melodrama with several sequences of binge drinking, puking and half-naked nymphets, who purr poetic come-ons like, “I want to be your wide receiver.” Indeed, “Blues” seethes with youth hormones doing crazy end-zone dances of their own.

“Varsity Blues” is not the Texas football movie we’ve been waiting for. It clearly fails to plumb the complex dynamics of communal fervor that propels the native phenomenon, the same patriarchal zealotry that engines the military mindset.

But is that what MTV viewers want? I think not. They want dimply guys, hot girls, tart tongues and AC/DC songs crunching over slick field action. The movie is a glossy all-American teen dream perfectly attuned to its Tommy Hilfiger-swathed demographics.

Finally, let’s not forget that “Blues” fulfills the insatiable Chamber of Commerce contingent, too. It was filmed last spring in Austin, Elgin, Taylor and Georgetown, hence the noisy teen-agers at a sneak preview who kept pointing out their friends in the numerous crowd scenes. (“There’s Joey! Yea!”) I can’t tell you how annoying that is, although I fess up to a tiny cheer when American-Statesman sports writer Olin Buchanan popped up in a speaking role as a TV anchor man.

And we can thank former University of Texas quarterback Peter Gardere, who gets a credit, for helping those football scenes look so fab.