In the American pop-culture feedback loop, at the football-movie intersection between sports and cinema and how the two inform and reflect each other, lurks a line delivery that lasts only a couple of seconds. It is uttered in an accent that is not particularly Texan, but that misstep can be forgiven because so much else about the moment works. The directness. The resentment. The very relatable sense of rejecting your elders and what they stood for because you’re going to do your own thing, man. Yes, I am talking about the movie excellence that is James Van Der Beek sneering “I don’t want your life” from Varsity Blues, a ’90s artifact that has endured the ravages of time.
It was quite a decade for America’s game on the big screen — in all its camaraderie and bullying, capitalism and teamwork. If you thought the sport was a path toward self-empowerment and friendship, you had tearjerker Rudy (congratulations to anyone who invested in facial tissues before it came out) and Adam Sandler’s surprisingly earnest The Waterboy (proving that Fairuza Balk could be as funny as she was unhinged in The Craft and American History X). If you wanted a kind of cautionary tale about how football reinforces white Christian male gatekeeping, there was School Ties. If you wanted a romance about the partnership and loyalty needed to survive in such a competitive field, there was Jerry Maguire. And if you wanted Oliver Stone and Al Pacino at the height of their powers, there was Any Given Sunday.
Amid all that, Varsity Blues — about a Texas high-school football team rebelling against its abusive coach and holding on to one last gasp of glory before graduation — got a little lost. It probably didn’t help that the 1990 nonfiction book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, by H. G. Bissinger, which was also about a Texas high-school football team, would be adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by Peter Berg in 2004 and adapted by Berg again into the universally beloved TV series that spawned the endlessly repeated “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” rallying cry. Against all that sincerity, beautiful cinematography, and the force of Connie Britton’s head of hair, Varsity Blues — with its homophobic and misogynistic humor, subplot about a sex-education teacher who also happens to be a stripper who knowingly performs in front of her students, and thinly sketched female characters — doesn’t quite hold up.
Yet: What Varsity Blues did do right was channel the anti-authoritarian vibe so integral to movies about teenagers and high school, and Van Der Beek’s performance is the key. It might be difficult now to understand how big of a deal Dawson’s Creek was when it premiered on the WB and threw adults into a frenzy with its narrative about teens daring to read books and have sex (Oh, no!). Van Der Beek played the titular Dawson, and his persona was one of a straightforward, yearning good guy chafing against others’ cynicism. The Varsity Blues role of Jonathan “Mox” Moxon, backup to Paul Walker’s golden-god quarterback Lance Harbor, was right in Van Der Beek’s wheelhouse.
Mox reads Kurt Vonnegut. Mox respects his girlfriend, Jules (Amy Smart), and her sexual boundaries, and he encourages his younger brother, Kyle (Joe Pichler), in his experimentations with various religious beliefs. (The movie’s strangest moments, almost respectable in their weirdness, include Kyle dressing up like Malcolm X in one scene and leading a cult in another.) Mox dreams of leaving the small town of West Canaan, Texas, and attending Brown University. And if he never played football again? Well, that’s fine.
But there wouldn’t be a movie if Varsity Blues didn’t have some conflict before Mox leaves home, so screenwriter W. Peter Iliff (who also has story and screenplay credits on Point Break!) incorporates an array of obstacles. West Canaan Coyotes coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight) is a racist tyrant who pushes his players past their limit in order to win. As a result, Lance suffers a devastating knee injury. Kilmer is so abusive to Mox’s close friend and fellow player Billy Bob (Ron Lester) that the offensive guard suffers an emotional breakdown. And Lance’s girlfriend, Darcy (Ali Larter), tries to latch on to the next big thing after Lance gets injured by attempting to seduce Mox in a whipped-cream and Maraschino-cherry bikini. It is, of course, the first GIF that comes up when you search for Varsity Blues:
The second GIF result, though, is the film’s most climactic moment, and it’s what cements the film as a teen movie first and a football movie second. The “sports are a unifier, not a hierarchy” scenes are solid: Mox and the other players stand up to Kilmer, shaming him out of the sport, and Lance coaches the Coyotes into winning the district championship with an unexpected play call that proves Billy Bob is an integral member of the team. But it’s the “I don’t want your life” scene that lays bare the bitterness and discontent that drive Mox and his peers to turn against their parents and elders, and apparently you can watch a ten-minute loop of it on YouTube? I say this like I haven’t already watched the ten-minute loop on YouTube. I can’t help it! I am transfixed!
Director Brian Robbins begs us to empathize with Mox here, and okay, sure, I will! The film cuts back and forth between Van Der Beek’s Mox and his whiny father, Sam (Thomas F. Duffy), who played for West Canaan and has built his entire identity around those four years. While Sam tries to police Mox’s attitude and tone, Mox glistens (he’s sweaty!) and glowers (he’s angry!). Cinematographer Chuck Cohen allows Van Der Beek the whole frame to have his little Rebel Without a Cause cosplay, his little homage to “You’re tearing me apart,” his little moment as the guy who gets the final word. Between this scene and Van Der Beek’s iconic weeping meme from Dawson’s Creek, did anyone else so accurately capture the emotional roller coaster that was being an early millennial convinced of one’s singular integrity and pain?
Varsity Blues has a peculiar shadow of tragedy hovering over it thanks to the deaths of Walker and Lester in 2013 and 2016, respectively, and the disappearance of Pichler in 2006. Personas change, and Van Der Beek has morphed into a self-aware celebrity who gets how mockable some of his early acting roles were. What still works about Varsity Blues, though (unlike Mox’s gigantically baggy jeans and Scott Caan’s Tweeder joking about drugging younger classmates and getting them naked), is the sense that Mox was onto something about how football really is America’s game — a valorization of individuality and sacrifice. What’s more American than rejecting the status quo? Daring to go against the tide? Doing and saying something that few others will do? That probably takes as much strength and fortitude as taking a knee when no one else will.