PHOTO: L to R: Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) and Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran). Photo by Ron Phillips. © Disney 2015.
By Cate Marquis, Arts & Entertainment Editor for The Current
“McFarland USA” is based a true story, of how a 1980s team of Hispanic boys from a tiny, poor town in rural California scored an upset in cross-country running, a sport dominated by private schools and public school districts in wealth areas.
Even those who do not care for sports movies can enjoy this one. There are serious pitfalls for this kind of movie but sometimes a movie rises above the genre – think “Friday Night Lights.” Although all sports stories, especially the “true story” variety, have similar arcs, what can set this kind of story apart is the people in it and how the story is told. Although “McFarland USA” is a much more positive, uplifting story than “Friday Night Lights” – this is a Disney film after all – this warm-hearted movie is just as surprising and offers its own human insights.
Director Niki Caro, who also directed “Whale Rider,” keeps a light, playful, even comic tone for most of the film, which helps us get to know the characters while rescuing it from pitfalls of the sentimental. That skillful touch also strengthening the emotional or inspirational scenes when they do come. The result is a pleasantly entertaining film that touches the heart just the same.
Part of “McFarland USA’s” success is due to Kevin Costner as the team’s coach. Costner has a knack for this kind of character, a dry, ironic character, a flawed man who has a good heart and a bit of humility. Costner’s light touch helps save the film from heavy-handed sentimentality and lends it a lightness and human warm that is appealing. “McFarland USA” is a more entertaining movie than one expects it to be.
Coach Jim White (Costner) has been on a losing streak in his career, booted out of football program after program at private or suburban schools. Desperate for a job, he takes a position in the remote California town of McFarland and moves his Midwestern family, wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher), there sight unseen. The appearance of the dusty little Latino town, surrounded by farm fields, brings some culture shock, prompting youngest daughter Jamie to ask if they are in Mexico. Their new home has a dry lifeless yard and the Spanish-speaking older woman next door welcomes them with the gift of a live chicken. Their discomfort worsens when the daughters and wife are greeted by wolf whistles from young men cruising in low-rider cars as the family is leaving a local restaurant their first night.
That first day leaves the family worried but, with no other job prospects, the coach has no choice but to give it a try. Both the new coach and his students have some adjusting to do, with the students get a kick out of calling him just White, without the Mr. or Coach. Coach White takes that without comment but it does not take long for him to get in trouble with the other football coach at his new school. However, White notices something about the kids in town – they seem to run everywhere. Many of them work in the fields picking produce with their parents in the morning, run to school in time for classes to start, and run back to the fields after school. Coach starts timing them.
The coach puts together a cross-country team, and things begin to change, as he learns that beyond their physical talents, these kids pack a strong work ethic and even stronger family bonds. Their determination matters, as social class as much as ethnic differences play a part in this story. The McFarland team is breaking into a sport that is not only mostly white, but mostly affluent and suburban. The McFarland team lacks the resources of the other teams, uniforms, practice facilities, even decent shoes. The film comes at this story of overcoming the odds from that perspective. Rather than focusing on border crossings and language issues, the film frames its narrative like the classic second or third generation American immigrant tale, whether that immigrant is Italian, Irish or Mexican.
Ultimately, the boys and the town do as much to save Coach White as much as he saves them, from assumptions that seem to limit their live choices.
As inspirational, true-story sports films go, “McFarland USA” is a winner, avoiding the potholes of the genre while truly warming the heart with its inspiring true story.
© The Current 2015