Disney’s MCFARLAND, USA is inspired by a true story about a fired high school football coach who in 1987 starts a high school cross-country team with Mexican-American kids from McFarland, one of the poorest towns in California.
Director Niki Caro (WHALE RIDER, NORTH COUNTRY) does a great job of keeping this inspirational story from being too cliché. Yes, there are moments when the film is very much by the numbers, but she adds a certain authenticity that you wouldn’t expect from a Hollywood inspirational coach/student athlete story. She also does a good job at keeping sentimentality to a minimum, but it is still there; after all, it is expected with this particular genre.
Helping keep the level of sentimentality to a minimum is Kevin Costner, who gives an unexpected solid performance as a quiet and restrained cross-country coach. His performance references an All-American wholesomeness that we haven’t seen from him since his movie star heyday of the ’80s when he starred in such hits as FIELD OF DREAMS, THE UNTOUCHABLES, and DANCES WITH WOLVES. It was his All-American wholesomeness that made him one of America’s hottest stars before his career careened out of control from such ’90s flops as THE POSTMAN and WATERWORLD. Lucky for us Mr. Costner got his ’80s mojo back for this film.
In MCFARLAND, USA Costner portrays Jim White (yes, that’s his real-life last name), a teacher and football coach who was fired from previous high school jobs because of “disagreements” and infractions. His only teaching job prospect is at McFarland High School. He moves his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and their two daughters to McFarland, California, a predominately Mexican-American town. Much of the initial conflict comes from the family’s fear (they are Caucasian) of living in a community that is ethnically and culturally different than what they are accustomed.
As the family acclimates, White notices during gym class that several of the Mexican-American students run really fast. In hopes for redemption after being recently fired as McFarland’s assistant football coach, he convinces the school to start a cross-country team. The problem: the kids are “pickers”, and must help their parents make money by picking crops when they are not in school.
White gains the teams respect (you can tell because they initially call him “Whitey” or “Blanco”, but now call him “Coach”) and a better understanding of what it means to be a migrant worker after some sweat and a strained back from picking crops with the students. This is where “very much by the numbers” comes into play (think HOOSIERS) when the team trains and beats schools with all-white privileged students from such places as Palo Alto.
MCFARLAND, USA is about hard work, family values, and tolerance. It is, in many ways, a better representation of U.S. American values than that of the controversial AMERICAN SNIPER. My only hope is that MCFARLAND, USA, a film I recommend for families, can be just as successful at the box office as AMERICAN SNIPER because it is a film with a heart, and I think more Hollywood films should be made with heart.
James R. Janowsky
Twitter: @jamesjanowsky and @FILM_Hotspot