“So, do you guys get paid by the hour? -No, the field.”
McFarland, USA is the perfect opportunity to get to see Kevin Costner doing what he does best, which is inspirational sport movies. Once again he delivers a charismatic performance, this time as the coach of a cross country team from a poor school in McFarland, California. Costner has never been better than when he is playing a role in a sport movie (with the exception of the cold blooded murderer Mr. Brooks). He elevates a film that would otherwise be deemed as formulaic and predictable by bringing a lot of heart to the film and thus making it stand out from other inspirational Disney films. This is the classic fish out of water tale where a Caucasian coach is introduced to a struggling latino community. You could very easily predict what is going to happen, but somehow the film manages to make an emotional connection with the audience through carefully developed characters. The film isn’t interested in simply pointing out the accomplishments of these cross country runners, but rather focusing on who they are and how they relate with each other and their families. There are also some funny racial gags that can be expected as well. This is a feel good movie that is expertly directed by Niki Caro who has delivered some solid films in the past (Whale Rider and North Country). Caro is one of the many uprising female directors with a strong voice in Hollywood and someone who I will be looking forward to in the future.
The film takes place in 1987 in a small California town with a predominantly latino community. Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a teacher who applies for a job at one of the schools here after having moved around from different schools for several incidents throughout his career. He is overqualified for the job, but White is running out of options. He moves to McFarland with his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and his two young daughters, Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher). At first they aren’t thrilled to be here feeling out of place, but soon the community welcomes them. Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) allows Mr. White to start a cross country program in the school after he realizes that most of the kids are good runners. They basically get up at dawn to work in the crop fields and then run to the school and back again after they’re done. Despite not knowing anything about running, Mr. White (who his students call Blanco) uses his coaching abilities to get the best out of the natural born runners. The team consists of three brothers (Danny, David, and Damacio) who come from a very family oriented home. There is also Thomas (Carlos Pratts) whose father has just been released out of prison and seems to have some issues at home. He is the most talented runner, but he feels like he should be spending his time at work helping his family instead of in practice. Cross country becomes a means for these kids to grow and stay out of trouble. The film focuses on their relationship with White and the rest of their families.
McFarland starts off a bit slow, but once we are introduced to the runners the story picks up and becomes emotionally engaging. The kids have great chemistry with Kevin Costner and the tension comes mainly from getting permission by their families to practice rather than on external things. These kids come from low income families and have to work during early and late hours of the day at the crop fields before and after school. They have a hard lifestyle and once you see the film you won’t complain about your childhood. This inspirational sports movie is formulaic, but when the formula works as well as it does there is no need to change it. I was pleasantly surprised by this inspiring film and it is a shame it wasn’t seen by more people. Structurally it is very similar to Disney’s Million Dollar Arm, but McFarland has a lot more heart and the characters are more engaging. Kevin Costner’s charisma elevates the film, but the kids also deliver strong roles, especially Carlos Pratts who has several strong scenes here.