'McFarland, USA': Film Review

Ron Phillips
This sports saga treads familiar ground with warmth and skill

Kevin Costner returns to the sports movie genre in this inspirational story of an underdog cross country team.

Disney has created something of its own genre of inspirational sports movies.  The Rookie, Miracle and Million Dollar Arm were earlier examples, some more successful than others.  Now McFarland, USA can be added to the list, and it turns out to be an engaging variation on a very familiar theme, with promising box office prospects.

The film honors some of the parameters of the genre—underdog team rallies as it moves toward victory—while adding some intriguing contemporary elements.  Screenwriters Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson retell the (mainly) true story of a coach in the Central Valley of California who led a Hispanic high school team to a cross country championship.  While the beats of the story are often stock, the picture benefits from sensitive direction by New Zealander Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) and from a most appealing performance by Kevin Costner.

At first glance some might object to the idea of another white savior, who is actually named Jim White (the source of many running jokes throughout the movie), coming to the rescue of minority misfits.  But the concept works because White is presented as far from a paragon, a man with anger management issues that cost him many earlier jobs.  When he lands in McFarland, California, he seems to be at the end of the line, and he’s not exactly thrilled with the insolent young players on the high school football team.  But when he realizes that these kids have actually picked up speed and stamina from their work in the agricultural fields, he senses they may have a future as cross country runners.

The white-man-as-savior trope is also mitigated by the fact that the kids are feisty and completely unimpressed by their coach.  So mentor and students learn from each other in a rather predictable but still pleasing story arc.  Sharply observed details invigorate the movie.  Caro and her crew get a very lived-in feeling to the scenes in ethnic neighborhoods.  All performances are strong, though it’s too bad that the attractive Maria Bello as the coach’s wife isn’t given a more nuanced character to play.

Some of the young actors who play the team members are newcomers discovered in the area.  Carlos Pratts, who plays the most temperamental but gifted runner, is a professional actor, and he seethes with convincing resentments.  Ramino Rodriguez as the team’s mascot also scores.  Even minor roles, like the school principal and some of the boys’ parents, are expertly cast and vividly played.

Still, it is Costner who holds the picture together.  This is one of the best performances he’s given, unforced but often eloquent, without the least trace of grandstanding.  He earned some good reviews for another recent movie, Black or White, but he’s even more at home in this drama, which stirs pleasing memories of his work in other sports movies back in the 80s.

Although the film may not have been intended as a political statement, it does take on a measure of urgency because of renewed debate about our national immigration problem.  And McFarland can’t help but have an impact on that debate because of the skill with which it discovers the humanity of people who are belittled and demonized in some quarters.  This isn’t to say that it’s a flawless piece of agitprop.  Caro lets the story drag on a little too long, and sometimes she ladles on the syrup too heavily.  A scene where the boys travel to the ocean for the first time, with music swelling, seems to be aping Chariots of Fire.  Despite these overstated moments, it is pretty hard to resist the rousing conclusion.

Production:  Mayhem Pictures.

Cast:  Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Ramiro Rodriguez, Michael Aguero, Valente Rodriguez.

Director: Niki Caro.

Screenwriters:  Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Grant Thompson.

Story by:  Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois.

Producers:  Gordon Gray, Mark Ciardi.

Executive producers:  Mario Iscovich, Mary Martin.

Director of photography:  Adam Arkapaw.

Production designer:  Richard Hoover.

Costume designer:  Sophie De Rakoff.

Editor:  David Coulson.

Music:  Antonio Pinto.

Casting:  Sheila Jaffe.

Rated PG, 128 minutes.

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