Perhaps it is the passing of Chad Batista, or perhaps it is writing so much about the past these past few weeks, but I keep reflecting on people in my life who’ve died. Not just the close relatives, the ones like Batista who I only really knew in passing and seemed fine, but if you knew them well, you’d probably realize they felt trapped and wanted out.
Then I came to 2004 and my favorite sports movie of all time, Friday Night Lights. I first saw the movie as part of the most popular class at USC taught by noted movie critic Leonard Maltin. He would bring in movies that were about to be released in theaters along with someone from the film to speak on it after the screening. FNL was one of our movies, and our guest speaker was Billy Bob Thornton.
One of the kids taking the class was Lee Thompson Young, who was actually watching a movie he was in. He played “Boobie’s back-up’s back-up” who is thrust into a starting position after the star running back Boobie Miles is injured. You may know him more for his TV role as Jett Jackson. I just knew him as Lee, who was friends with a few of my friends, but definitely not someone I would consider a pal. The only time we really spent together was at one freshman assembly where we ended up sitting next to one another. He enjoyed wisecracks as much as I did, so we traded jokes back and forth during an otherwise boring presentation.
Two years ago, almost to the day, Lee killed himself. He wasn’t my friend, I hadn’t seen him since college, but I remembered how happy he seemed all the time, and that kind of got to me. Had he been depressed all that time? I will never know the answer. Reports say he was bipolar, but who knows what was going through his head, save for himself.
When you read descriptions of depression, one of the descriptors that gets used a lot is “stuck”. People feel like they’re in a situation with no way out. I’ve mentioned before that country music centers around this small town depression a lot. There are plenty of people who are content with the small town life, but for others, it is a confining thing, growing up in a place you are desperate to get out of.
Really, the whole notion of the American Dream is predicated upon improving upon your position in this world. For the players on the Permian football team in Friday Night Lights, the means to an end football brings them runs the spectrum. Some, like the fullback (Garrett Hedlund) know this is as good as life is probably going to get for him, while others, like back Boobie Miles, have been working their whole lives for football to save them from their lot in life.
I’ve complained many times in the past that movies and TV just have a hard time getting small town life right, but FNL is very much the exception to that rule. Much of that kind of life is very similar to city life. You hang out with friends at bars and restaurants on the weekend, you are generally proud of where you come from even if you intend to get out of there as soon as you can, and there are customs and places that will always make you feel like you are home.
It isn’t a romanticized wonderland, but it isn’t the pit of awful some shows make it out to be. Let me clarify, I didn’t come from a small town. I grew up in the city people in small towns traveled to on the weekends. Our Friday nights in high school were spent at the football games too, but we were mostly there to support our marching band, who was midway through one of the most dominant stretches in Kentucky band history.
The TV show version of Friday Night Lights touches on the pressure that comes with being the one who is supposed to “get out”, but there is not a scene in that TV show that holds a candle to the scene where Boobie realizes he isn’t going to the NFL, let alone a Division 1 college football program. This was the guy who had his own big dreams and the big dreams of an entire town heaped upon him, so it isn’t just about personal success, it is about the pressure of letting other people down besides yourself. If this scene doesn’t convey you just how hard it can be to have your ticket to a better life ripped to pieces in front of you.
The closing credits of Friday Night Lights informs you just how many guys ended up staying near the town of Odessa, Texas. Like I said, it is the life for some people, but for spunky teen detective Veronica Mars, getting the hell out of Neptune, California is one of her top life goals. Her first is to figure out who killed her best friend Lily. That mystery is the central storyline of this show’s first season, which I would rank as one of the top five individual seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Watching Veronica try to make it through the back half of high after being excluded from the in crowd in the fallout from Lily’s death perfectly complements seeing Boobie fall from grace in FNL. Veronica is at the bottom, trying to work her way up and out. There are few moments where she gets sad and cries because she’s simply been burnt too many times for life to faze her anymore.
I was introduced to this series by a friend, Jenni, who said I had to watch because Veronica was me. At the time, I hoped it was mostly because I too made the occasional Outsiders reference. In hindsight, I can see how she made the connection because I tended to be the girl on her own a lot during college. I had several groups of friends. There were those I lived with, those in film school with me, those in our community service fraternity, and others I amassed through classes. In that respect, I very much remain Veronica, as I never seem to be at the heart of many social groups, but stuck on the fringes of several.
Stuck probably isn’t the right word, as I choose not to get too close, which is the same choice Veronica makes over and over again. She spends the first two years of the show patiently saving money, patiently putting up with crap, and each time that skin just grows thicker and thicker. She has her soft spots, like her mom and her two primary paramours, but for the most part she assumes her friends will let her down. Even her BFF Wallace abandons her at one point.
She was supposed to go to Stanford, but with the show getting an unexpected third season, she stays in Neptune for college. The series ends with Veronica backed up against a wall, but instead of her sacrificing herself for someone, it is the one person she can rely on who throws himself on the sword. She avoids the serious trouble and, according to the movie that came out last year, transfers to Stanford, gives up the private investigator life, and moves to New York to become a lawyer.
Sounds great, right? But the movie proves that even people like Veronica can go home again, and when she is back in Neptune, she finds herself questioning her life choices. While some criticize the film’s structure as being too episodic, I found the whole thing rather perfect, because it acknowledges that those who do try to “get out” often feel just as stuck. You inevitably end up doing things differently than you thought, you end up somewhere you didn’t expect, and the notion of being home where everything is so much more familiar sounds pretty great.
Considering I was just beginning my adventure outside the confines of Kentucky when Keane’s popular Hopes and Fears album came out, it makes sense I was so drawn to their most popular song, Somewhere Only We Know. The whole album is really a meditation on growing up and how it comes a lot faster than you expect. This song in particular is about that longing for something in your life to be fixed and stable. When you’re younger, your parents, your siblings, your house, most of these things are not going anywhere. As you hit college, friends disappear, your parents become a more remote part of your life, and it feels like absolutely nothing is static.
It is a very thrilling feeling in your 20s, the idea of complete fluidity, but as this song notes, eventually you look around and the “simple things” are gone, some opportunities have forever passed you by, and all you want is, “something to rely on.” The guys in Keane were still in their 20s when they wrote this song, but it’s a feeling I think many in our 30s understand, which is that walking away from something or giving something up at this point in your life is so much harder than it used to be because this could be the end of everything and you’re not gonna get another chance to fix it.
But even in my 20s the idea of crawling into a familiar space with someone who understood where I was coming from was an incredibly comforting idea, especially on those days when I was feeling a little bit stuck. Because wandering around the barren landscape Keane describes in their song can be frightening, and a touch overwhelming when you’re going it alone, looking for somewhere or something to make you feel a little less stuck. And, as the song notes, sometimes you get tired of all that looking and wonder if maybe the place you felt stuck in is the home you belong in after all.
Whether you stay close to home or venture out, I think we all understand that feeling of being stuck. Just remember that sometimes when people feel this way, asking for help is harder than it may seem. If you don’t think there is any way out, why bother asking someone for a favor? So keep in mind that sometimes you need to reach out and, sure, sometimes you may feel a little silly that they are fine, but better that than being stuck for years wondering if you speaking up might have made a difference.