2015, PG, 128 mins.
2015, PG, 128 mins.
Kevin Costner as Jim White / Maria Bello as Cheryl / Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny Diaz / Carlos Pratts as Thomas / Johnny Ortiz as Jose / Morgan Saylor as Julie / Vincent Martella as Brandon / Elsie Fisher as Jamie / Daniel Moncada as Eddie / Diana Maria Riva as Senora Diaz / Vanessa Martinez as Maria Marisol / Chelsea Rendon as Sonia / Ben Bray as Ernesto Valles
Directed by Niki Caro / Written by Chris Cleveland, Grant Thompson, and Bettina Gilois
I have to be honest. I had no desire to see a film about cross country running. None at all.
certainly have respect for the sport’s athletes, I just wasn’t sure if
the subject was inherently cinematic.
Yet, along comes McFARLAND, USA –
a new fact-based sports drama from Disney –
to completely make me change my tune.
The film works marvelously not only as an inspirational true story
of perseverance against physical and emotional obstacles, but it's also a
fascinating chronicle of how a former football high school coach turned a
ragtag group of Latinos from a small and relatively impoverished community
into one of the most celebrated high school cross country teams of
community in question is McFarland, California, whose high school –
despite not having a cross country program beforehand – won nine
Californian state championships between 1987 and 2013.
Considering the fact that the school barely had any type of serious
athletic program before this remarkable feat is kind of astounding in its
own right. The coach in
question had his own unlikely rise to prominence.
Jim White left his football coaching job in the mid-1980’s – in
a semi-disgraced state – to relocate himself and his entirely family to
McFarland, after which time he cultivated a cross country team that
garnered 22 league titles in 24 years, including the aforementioned state
championships. He retired in
2003 as the most successful coach in the sport’s American high school
history. McFARLAND, USA tells
this story with a remarkable amount of dignity and poise.
It manages to set itself apart from the litany of numerous other
past genre films, most of which were characteristically overrun with
dramatic manipulation and overt sentimentality.
This film, by comparison, feels more atypically genuine, heartfelt,
film opens in 1987 as we are introduced to tough-minded football coach Jim
White (an unreservedly well cast Kevin Costner), who is very
unceremoniously fired from his high school coaching job after he threw a
shoe at one particularly petulant player.
With virtually no other job prospects in sight, Jim finally decides
to pack up his home and family and moves his wife (Maria Bello) and
daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher respectively) to McFarland, a
mostly Latino community in rural California where most of its citizens –
and high school students for that matter – eek out a living as workers
in fruit and vegetable fields. Jim begrudgingly takes over as the school’s new P.E.
teacher and beyond feeling culturally isolated from the neighborhood he soon discovers that his school’s sports program is virtually a
a failed – and all-too-brief stint – as McFarland’s football coach,
Jim begins to notice something compelling: he sees that many of his
students, including the extremely fast and agile Thomas (Carlos Pratts),
are unusually strong runners. This
leads to him pondering the potential of McFarland High School cultivating a
cross country running team and, in turn, developing some much-need
self-respect in the school and community at large.
After getting school permission to do so, Jim then has the thorny
task of persuading his most gifted students to join the team, which means
convincing them that cross country running is a viable sport for them to
partake in. As Jim struggles
to gain his students’ respect while training them in all of the
particulars of the sport, he also finds that keeping them on the team
itself is a near Herculean task, seeing as their families require them to
work when they’re not at school to make ends meet.
This, of course, has a damaging effect on the team as they begin to
become dominant in the sport and begin seriously challenging some of the
other richer, all-white schools at their own game.
USA elevates itself above standard cookie cutter genre clichés and
conventions in terms of how much sensitivity the film places not only on
the sport of cross country running, but also on the fragile mindsets of
the young athletes themselves. Most
of the students, Thomas in particular, live in poverty and are forced to
choose daily between working and committing to school.
Very few sports films – high school or not – deal with the
intersection of the journey towards athletic excellence and glory with the
harsh economic uncertainties and anxieties of its players.
The more Jim becomes involved in the daily grind of his
“picker” students the more he begins to see sports as a positive
catalyst of change for them. In
many ways, McFARLAND, USA becomes less about its sport, per se, and more
about the nature of how some families see the proverbial American Dream
outside of their grasps. True
opportunity seems so unlikely for the students of McFarland, which makes
Jim’s mission all the more timely and demanding.
kudos needs to go to director Niki Caro, the New Zealand director who
previously – and most famously – made WHALE RIDER.
In a genre mostly filled with male filmmakers at the helm, it’s
refreshing to see a woman behind the camera lend a more keenly sensitive
eye to both the underlining story and characters.
The students themselves don’t fall victim to sports film
formulas, as most of them are reasonably fleshed out and are given weight.
The dramatic anchor of the film is arguably Thomas, who faces an
alcoholic father at home and a genuine lack of guidance in his life.
To be fair, McFARLAND could have easily fallen into the trap of
becoming a "White Savior" sports film with Jim swooping in to
save the souls of his Mexican immigrant students.
Thankfully, the film is as much about Jim combating his own
prejudices with the town’s citizens as it is about him trying to rally
its high school students together. In
a way, both the coach and his players are on journeys of self-discovery in
has done so many sports films that it’s often easy to overlook how
damn good he is in them; he always seems to be a reliably stalwart and
understated anchor leading the charge.
His low key and nuanced performance as Jim allows for his strong
young supporting cast to share the spotlight with him. Costner efficiently plays his character with the right
balance of headstrong determination and internalized uncertainty and doubt
that helps ground the film immensely.
McFARLAND, USA does, of course, build to the obligatory “big
climatic match” that pits McFarland versus potentially unstoppable
opponents in the 1987 Californian state championship.
Even if the outcome here is a foregone historical conclusion, the
film still imbues the journey towards this point in the story with ample
heart and soul. Like the
criminally underrated MIRACLE (another
Disney sports picture), McFARLAND, USA feels both old fashioned, yet
revitalizingly novel in dealing with a story of redemption for both mentor
and students alike.
film certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel for its genre (that, and
it’s a wee bit safe with the material), but it does become undeniably
charming and unexpectedly moving along the way.
Heart-warming, handsomely mounted, and endearingly performed,
McFARLAND, USA emerges as one of the better family films of recent memory
and a rare sports biopic that thoroughly invests in the fragile mindsets
of its characters. The
inspirational sports genre seems to have run out of gas as of late, but
when done well and with the right tact...pleasant surprises like this