McFarland, USAby 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.
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.
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.
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.
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