Brian Robbins. Release Date: January 15, 1999. DVD Release Date: May 31, 1999.
When I watched this for the first time on video a million years ago, I was surprised at the depth I found within this story and its characters: in many ways, it's less a teen comedy, although there are some of those traditional elements and it's more of an exploration of the issues facing teens at the turn of the century.
There's a lot of probing into what is reality for many high school kids: parents, teachers, and friends put more stock into how far you can throw a ball (if you're a boy) than whether or not you can read. James Van Der Beek is the boy who questions the sanity of that environment, even as he's bound in chains of duty and expectation to that reality. I don't usually enjoy Van Der Beek, on the big screen or my TV screen, but I thought he did an excellent job in his role as the deeply suffering young man.
In addition to the sports versus academics debate, Varsity Blues runs the gamut of teen issues: drinking, drugs, sex, relationships, friendships, and a variety of moral attitudes. For high school students in small towns, there's also the discussion about going after a life that is... not necessarily better, but maybe bigger than the lives their parents have lived. Not only do I think it does a fair job of covering these issues, I think the movie makes responsible suggestions for how to handle these problems, with the exception of teen alcohol use. There it kind of falls of the wagon, if you'll forgive the pun. The story doesn't condemn the underage drinking, where a more responsible movie might, but I don't think that it does a very good job of exploring the consequences of what we see during the course of the film.
There are a number of good performances in this movie. Scott Caan comes to mind immediately, since about half of the Animal House-style antics begin and end with him, and his portrayal of the party boy football player is probably one of his better performances. Jon Voigt, who, as the local football coach, comes in as the bad guy of the piece is remarkably good. His role is so chilling and overbearing that I have to wonder what parent in their right mind would let a football coach talk to their son like that, regardless of his results. I also liked Amy Smart, although as the only major female role, I'm surprised they supported a character that was willing to compromise herself sexually in order to get ahead.
I suspect if you live more than 100 miles from either the east or west coasts of the country that you'll recognize something about your area in this movie. I lived in West Texas, not far from where this was set, for about four months in 2002, and I thought they portrayed the football and high school culture very well, without being too over the top. If you haven't seen it once, you probably should get to it.