McFarland, USA

by Alex Stroup, staff writer

Field of Dreams. Tin Cup. Bull Durham. For the Love of the Game. American Flyers. Draft Day.

Kevin Costner knows his way around a sports movie—and he slips on McFarland, USA like a well-worn glove perfectly molded to his hand. Costner has certainly made his share of questionable movies over the years, but put a little competition into the mix and it seems to always come out OK for the audience.

McFarland, USA tells the true story of coach Jim White and his success at introducing cross country to a small high school in California's Central Valley. Building his team around the children of local farm laborers ("We're pickers," you'll be reminded throughout), he sees immediate success that will continue for decades.

Official "McFarland, USA" movie trailer. Copyright Walt Disney Company.

Although it touches all the standard up beats of a sports movie, moments of real heart are found by avoiding the cliched struggles of the genre. Director Niki Caro (the female New Zealand director of Whale Rider is not the obvious choice for an American sports movie) and screenwriter Christopher Cleveland resist the urge to make on-field competitors the villain of the movie. Sure, some say inappropriate things before and after the race, but once the starter pistol goes off, they all simply compete.

Instead, it is circumstance that the team is fighting against. The life of field workers on California's farms is what is to be overcome. There simply isn't much room in a day for the unnecessary when you work a full day in the fields wrapped around attending school. Parents have tough choices to make when asked to buy nice running shoes when it is hard enough to just feed everybody.

"McFarland, USA." Copyright Walt Disney Company.

While it might have been more interesting to see events through the eyes of the young runners, Costner's coach Jim White is very much the center of the movie. On the team, only two of the seven really get to stand out as individuals. Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez) is the anchor of the team, taking a spot to meet the minimum requirements. If he weren't on the chubby side and given a big moment at the end, he'd blend in with the rest of the team. Thomas (Carlos Pratts) is the only runner given much screentime outside of meets, and Pratts does the most with it, stealing all of the focus when on screen—even when sharing the scene with Costner.

Jim White is a career high school P.E. teacher and coach who has issues with authority. He's bounced his family around the country, unable to hold onto jobs for very long before he accidentally injures a student football player. P.E. teacher at a poor small-town high school is his last shot and he's determined to get his family out of there as soon as possible. 

"McFarland, USA." Copyright Walt Disney Company.

Although he's overqualified, he immediately loses his position as assistant to the high school's football coach (after an appropriate act of defiance), and, noticing how quickly some of his students are when running to and from school, decides that they'll make a try for California's first cross country state championship in 1987.

After that, it is a sequence of training scenes where White learns to appreciate the local Hispanic culture (at the start of the movie unhappily settles for tacos when the family learns the local taqueria doesn't do hamburgers but by the end he's much more assimilated). In return his team, and their parents, learn to respect him as a coach and a mentor.

"McFarland, USA." Copyright Walt Disney Company.

There are three minor missteps in the movie. At 60 (and starting to look it), Kevin Costner is simply a bit too old for the situation his character finds himself in. Especially with a family to support. An inability to get along may have a certain rakish charm at 30 but is a bit more pathetic at 60, and the movie doesn't seem aware of that.

Then there is a scene of apparent domestic violence that is then ignored at the initial emotional repercussions. Finally, Maria Bello is too good an actor to spend a movie standing around being the supporting wife.

"McFarland, USA." Copyright Walt Disney Company.

Overall though, the movie hits its marks and squeezes honest emotional responses out of scenes that should have been pure schmaltz. It isn't a sports classic like Bull Durham or Field of Dreams, but once again, Costner delivers a sports movie that is much better on screen than it sounds on paper.

  • McFarland, USA is a Walt Disney Pictures release (official movie website).
  • Wide theatrical release on Friday, February 20, 2015
  • Directed by Nick Caro
  • Screenplay by Christopher Cleveland
  • Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero
  • Running time: 128 minutes
  • Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language
  • Alex's rating: 8 out of 10



  1. By Chewyswimmer

    As a Cross Country coach and Track Coach, I definitely want to see the movie. I need a good uplifting story. My community is very similar in situation to McFarland. Several of my runners are planning a trip to the theater as part of our running teams. Not sure if I will have the time, or money, to see this one in theaters, but plan on checking it out. Thanks for the review.

  2. By Lani

    Quote Originally Posted by Chewyswimmer View Post
    As a Cross Country coach and Track Coach, I definitely want to see the movie. I need a good uplifting story. My community is very similar in situation to McFarland. Several of my runners are planning a trip to the theater as part of our running teams. Not sure if I will have the time, or money, to see this one in theaters, but plan on checking it out. Thanks for the review.

    That's great, Chewy!

    So there was a local race near my home this past weekend where Disney apparently either sent a photographer or made arrangements with the event photographer to take group shots of people after the race, and then uploaded the photos with the name of the race on one bottom corner, and the logo for the movie on the other corner.

    It would seem to me that, if you are in a similar situation as the story in the movie, that you might be able to work out something? I would contact the local movie theater and see if you could get them to offer movie tickets at a big discounted price, to start! You might also want to contact your local TV station and tell them what you just posted here, especially if you can arrange for some of your cross-country/track athletes to go as a group. They might even be able to bring a cameraman, and get some quotes from your high school students about what they thought about the movie.

    Do you have a local ABC affiliate? That would be the way to go, since it's Disney-owned. That would be so neat!

  3. By Drince88

    Did California really not have State Championships in Cross Country until 1987? I KNOW Oregon did well before then, because a good friend did very well at them!

    ETA: And I agree with Lani, Chewy - see if you can get the local ABC station involved - or at least ASK at the theater if you can get discounted tickets for the team!

  4. By Alex S.

    That's what I remembered being said in the movie. Not finding it said on the CIF's officialy site (and the historical results only go back to 2004).

    But according to this retrospective, it does seem right. Sounds like there may have been regional champions. This site also references 1987 as the first state championship. One thing I learn from this that wasn't ever mentioned in the movie is that McFarland won the Division 3 championship. Which makes sense, it's a small school.

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