'McFarland, USA': What the Critics Are Saying

Based on a true story, the Disney film has Kevin Costner leading a group of unlikely high school runners to a championship-level cross-country competition.

Based on the true story of McFarland High School’s 1987 cross country team, Kevin Costner stars coach Jim White, a man who ends up at a predominantly Latino school in California and forms a team of unlikely runners into a championship-level team. Disney hopes to repeat the success of their previous based-on-true-stories sports films The Rookie, Miracle, and Million Dollar Arm.

Read what top critics are saying about McFarland, USA:

The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber writes, "While the beats of the story are often stock, the picture benefits from sensitive direction by New Zealander Niki Caro (Whale RiderNorth Country) and from a most appealing performance by 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."

The film’s “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.” But, “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.”

LA Times' Kenneth Turan agrees, saying, "the truth is no one can play earnest, tenacious, ordinary-hero Kevin Costner roles like Kevin Costner. Even though playing Coach White required no artistic heavy lifting on the actor's part, the reliability of his presence is a genuine asset here." Also, “Caro has a feeling for minority communities, and her empathy for the students of McFarland High and, equally important, their hardscrabble families, give this a caring, emotional core. Caro insisted that the production shoot part of the time in McFarland itself" and "even had the young actors who play the high school cross-country team, many of whom come from the area, run up and down huge mounds of plastic-covered almonds as the real McFarland runners did."

Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips gives the film three stars, calling it "good news for a lot of reasons. One: Costner's previous film, Black or White, was pretty lousy. Two: Upbeat, inspirational films about cross-country athletes defy odds for success, since the innate solitude of the sport is better suited to things like The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner." The “tone of the picture is gentle and democratic. The seven-man cross-country team is nicely delineated, with a standout turn from Carlos Pratts as the most impressive of the competitors."

Tom Russo of The Boston Globe disagrees and gives the film one and half stars, stating, "Caro and Costner capably handle one sequence with potential to go way over the top" but "a sequence that intercuts between Costner singing along with the national anthem and the boys jogging past a schoolyard-adjacent prison fence is as heavy-handed as it sounds. And unintended awkwardness runs all through the quinceañera that the town throws for White’s daughter, a scene that wants to feel beautiful but instead leaves us nitpicking."

The Guardian's Jordan Hoffman doesn't mind the "scmaltz" and says, "The us-vs-them aspects of the film are scientifically manufactured to pull at the heartstrings" and "there’s more to this movie than sweeping music and celebrating in slow motion. It all stems from Costner’s remarkable, taciturn performance as Coach White." The "real underdog story is how this by-the-numbers film about cross-cultural friendship, tenacity and strong work managed to go the distance without my rolling my eyes too heavily."