If you’re watching a sports movie, especially one made by Disney, you can usually count on several things: a person or team overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds; resistance to said person or team, often for peculiar reasons; and the wringing out of emotions, whether warranted or not.
The refreshing thing about McFarland, USA is that it plays into all of those clichés but does not get dragged down by them. Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a combustible coach on the verge of losing his career when he comes to McFarland, California, a small town populated mostly by Mexican laborers working at nearby farms.
The refreshing thing about McFarland, USA is that it plays into those sports-movie clichés but does not get dragged down by them.
Noticing the boundless energy some boys display running to and from the fields, White recruits them to start a new cross country running team. To get to the elite status required to compete at the state level, the team must not only conquer other schools, but also bigger obstacles, like being torn between practicing or picking in the fields to make money for their families.
Unlike many movies of this kind, McFarland, USA is about more than just the sport that binds everything together. Director Niki Caro and a trio of writers examine the realities of living in a town like McFarland, from its inherent poverty to the community and culture that comes out of so many similarly minded people living in proximity to one another.
Almost from the start, the idea of family is front-and-center in the film, and it remains in play whether dealing with someone’s actual blood or the connection that comes with pursuing a team goal. The running scenes take on extra meaning not just because the team continues to improve as time goes along, but also because of the support they give one another.
That’s not to say that the film is without faults. The set-ups to various opponents’ making snide or racist comments toward the McFarland team feel obvious and clunky, as do a handful of other sequences. But the predictable ending turns out to be not so predictable, thanks to the early definition of key characters. The film also earns bonus points for respecting the Mexican people and not falling into stereotypes.
Even if he’s a bit old to be playing this particular part, Costner is at his charismatic best as White. The actors playing the runners, especially Carlos Pratts and Hector Duran, do a great job of bringing out their characters’ joy, pain and frustration. And complementary actors like Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor and Diana Mara Riva round out an interesting cast.
Go ahead and give in to the charms of McFarland, USA. It inspires both with the success of its team and by what a community can do when the odds are stacked against it.