- on Friday, 13 February 2015 12:07
- by Frank Wilkins
Mcfarland, USA shouldn’t work. Its stock story about a white coach in a small rural town who transforms a band of ethnic misfits into a well-oiled championship team is just too commonplace and smells like a prefabbed assembly line sports drama. But it’s not. Oddly, Mcfarland, USA works because it is not just a movie about sports. Sports is merely the thread that holds together the heartwarming story of a disadvantaged people stuck in a crappy way of life... and the man who makes a difference in their situation.
The town is Mcfarland, CA, a family-oriented Central Valley community populated mostly by Latino migrant field pickers who rarely exceed the ninth grade and almost never travel more than a few miles from home. With little opportunity and virtually no hope for advancement, school-aged children in Mcfarland are resigned to a life of picking vegetables before and after school, so there’s not much enthusiasm when Coach White (Kevin Costner) rolls into town with the idea of starting a cross-country track team.
Coach White is also approaching the end of a road, having recently lost his job as a high school football coach in Idaho. With his wife (Maria Bello) and two high-school-aged girls in tow, Coach White accepts a job as P.E. teacher where he notices the fleet-of-foot Latino students who keep in shape by running back-and-forth between school and the vegetable fields where they work after school until dusk.
As you might have already figured out – after all this is from Disney, the remainder of the film is centered around Coach White learning how to adjust to an unfamiliar environment while also turning his undisciplined runners into champions. But that’s where the similarities with most other films of the genre end.
Having previously made Whale Rider and North Country, both of which are heavily steeped in that immersive sense of local atmosphere, director Niki Caro does the same with her Mcfarland, USA. Only this time instead of the Polynesian Maori culture or the rough iron mines of northern Minnesota, Caro bastes her story in the flair of the local Latino people and the majestic beauty of California’s lush farmlands. Her story becomes a statement about the economic challenges faced by her story’s heroes. She’s certainly not the first to bring attention to the plight of immigrant farm workers, but by presenting their struggles in such a fun and approachable film, she might very well be the first to make a difference.
Costner turns in his best in quite some time despite what initially feels like a throwaway role as the white knight who rides in to save the minority students. But in an interesting turn, we learn that the plucky kids are mostly unimpressed by their coach, forcing White into a crash course on seeing the world from their point of view. Soon enough, mentor becomes student as both sides are forced to learn from the other in what is a predictable, but enjoyable nonetheless, turn of events. Coach White represents the difference a single person can make in a community while his relationship with the kids becomes the story’s heart and soul.
Leading the runners is the only experienced actor of the bunch in Carlos Pratts as Thomas, the most gifted athlete of them all. Forced to grow up way too fast, he learns through Coach White that his own talent might provide a way out of his bleak preordained destiny. But it’s real Mcfarland native Ramino Rodriguez who makes his acting debut in the film and steals nearly every scene he’s in as the portly underdog.
Equal parts fish-out-of-water story, rousing sports drama, and economic class commentary, Caro finds that perfect balance that sets her film apart from most in a genre which sees a new entrant practically every year. She fascinates us with a nearly unbelievable sports story that takes place in a beautiful-in-its-own-way part of the country, while skillfully touching on the ultra-sensitive topic of cultural differences. But most important to any successful sports drama, she depicts the thrill of the sport – in this case, cross country track – in an exciting and believable manner. All the more effective when the real Jim White and the members of his 1987 team accompany the closing credits.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material, some violence and language
Runtime: 128 mins
Director: Niki Caro
Writer: Christopher Cleveland
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor
Genre: Sports | Drama | Comedy
Tagline: Champions can come from anywhere
Memorable Movie Quote: "These are good kids, spart kids. They just need a chance ata brighter future."
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Release Date: February 20, 2015
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: no details available.
Synopsis: Based on the 1987 true story, McFarland USA follows novice runners from McFarland, an economically challenged town in California, as they give their all to build a cross-country team under the direction of Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), a newcomer to their predominantly Latino high school, with whom they ultimately bond to build not only a championship cross-country team but an enduring legacy as well.
No details available.