The 1990s proved the last decade for filmmakers working without a cultural net.
The 1980s offered a similar playground, but that era contained too much of the nation’s racist past and casual misogyny. The ‘90s, by comparison, saw a more enlightened era capture the American ethos while telling stories sans guard rails.
It’s why we look back at both decades with joy and sorrow. We miss their unchecked storytelling and mourn that today’s Hollywood couldn’t replicate some of the era’s classic films.
The 1999 sports drama “Varsity Blues” offers more proof of just that.
The film followed a backup high school quarterback (James Van Der Beek) who steps up to lead his team against all odds. Said odds include his football-obsessed father (Thomas F. Duffy), a mopey girlfriend (Amy Smart) and a coach (Jon Voight) whose win-at-all-costs antics made him a god in the fictional town of West Canaan, Texas.
FAST FACT: “Varsity Blues” earned a solid $52 million at the U.S. box office. It debuted in first place nationally, scoring $17 million.
Van Der Beek’s Jonathan Moxon, better known as Mox, replaces the team’s injured star and finds himself an instant celebrity. He’s uncomfortable with the role, preferring to snag a major college’s attention with his heroics.
There’s more to life than football, a sentiment not shared by his friends, family and neighbors.
He’s soon battling both the town’s lofty expectations and his coach’s draconian rules. It’s Coach Bud Kilmer’s way, or else, and his hard-charging methods are hurting his team … literally.
What makes “Varsity Blues” unproduceable today?
Too Much “White Privilege” – The mostly white football team is treated like royalty in West Canaan, allowing players to do whatever they want. One even swipes a police cruiser for an impromptu joy ride. There are few repercussions for their antics, and the film doesn’t stop cold to share why their selfish behavior is wrong.
It does so in a subtle manner, elevating Mox’s evolving moral compass above the rest. “Varsity Blues” isn’t sophisticated, but in this way, it’s as delicate as a butterfly wing.
Not Enough Racial Politics: A quick but pivotal scene has star running back Wendell Brown (Eliel Swinton) telling Mox that Voight’s coach is holding him back because he’s black. The efficient scene gets the point across, and it’s essentially the only time the subplot gets the film’s undivided attention. The point is made, but a modern movie wouldn’t stop there.
We’d likely see Coach Kilmer dress down a black server or something else overtly realized. The coach is a product of another era, and his bloviating proves it better than any ham-fisted sequence might.
Women Get Short Shrift: Ali Larter’s Darcy is the quarterback’s girlfriend, but once he goes down with a season-ending surgery she quickly shifts her focus to Mox. It’s a cruel stereotype, although Darcy is given a measure of depth when she admits to the source of her duplicitous ways. Amy Smart’s character is seen as Mox’s high-minded squeeze, but she’s given too little back story or scenes to make her character matter.
The players’ beautiful teacher is shown, later in the film, as a main attraction at the local strip club. Try that subplot today. We dare you.
Flags for Offensive Language: Football players often talk … like football players. That means the “F” word is uttered early in the film and many characters torture Billy Bob (the late Ron Lester) for his considerable size.
Scott Caan’s character routinely degrades women, and there’s no one present to correct or scold him. The comments hang in the air, and he’s never given a moment where his cruelty is taken to task. It’s not that kind of movie.
“Varsity Blues” can be as big and dumb as Billy Bob, but it trusts the audience to size up the story in play.
A Farrakhan-like Makeover: Child actor Joe Pichler play’s Mox’s younger brother, a minor figure in the film with a sizable running gag. He starts the film affixed to a cross, part of the youngster’s spiritual journey.
That’s hardly atypical in deep-red Texas.
Later, he embraces other religions, including adopting Islamic garb and rituals. It’s a throwaway subplot that isn’t as funny, or necessary, as the filmmakers intended. It’s still something modern screenwriters would avoid at all costs. Seeing a white child dressed as a Nation of Islam devotee might be too triggering in 2023.