McFarland, USA is by-the-numbers underdogs sport fare, but good direction and performances make it a respectable addition to the genre.
McFarland, USA takes place in 1987, as the life science/PE teacher Jim White (Kevin Costner) moves with his family to the eponymous city for a new high school teaching job, after having been fired (again) from his previous workplace due to his hot-headed behavior. Upon their arrival, the Whites find they stick out like sore thumbs in their new home: an economically destitute place that is predominantly populated by lower-class Latino Americans, many of whom spend their days working long hours and picking crops – even the high-schoolers.
Jim soon comes to realize that because of the way his students live – which includes having to travel by foot most everywhere they go – many of them have also developed exceptional running abilities… and, with some training, could become competitive long-distance runners. He sets out to put together a high school cross-country team, in the hope of assembling a crew that could have a shot at victory in the upcoming California State Championship – something that could help McFarland’s athletes succeed in ways they never would’ve thought possible before.
McFarland, USA is the latest installment in Walt Disney Pictures’ ongoing series of true story-based underdog sports movies – and it sticks (very) closely to the formula of such similar previous releases as Cool Runnings and Remember the Titans, in terms of plot beats and character archetypes. The key to making this “recipe” work – resulting in a feel-good family-friendly film about overcoming the odds (as well as race/culture-based divides between people) that’s more than the sum of its derivative elements – is the execution, as well as the “ingredients” (read: casting). And in those regards, McFarland, USA does well.
The McFarland, USA script – as co-penned by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois (Glory Road), as well as actor-turned screenwriter Grant Thompson – contains nearly every standard trope for the underdog sports genre. Predictability aside, the film is ultimately pretty cohesive in terms of its narrative structure and thematic arc. However, whereas the aforementioned Disney sports dramas managed to do a decent job splitting their focus between the coach figure and athletes in the story, McFarland, USA devotes too much attention to Costner’s struggles as the inspirational teacher, while short-changing the development of his underprivileged students (save for one of them).
What elevates McFarland, USA above its shortcomings is the direction by Niki Caro, whose previous work includes the Oscar-nominated Whale Rider and the working class drama North Country. Caro generally favors subtly with her storytelling approach; she underplays the cheesiness of the film’s plot beats via dialogue-free montage and mise-en-scène filmmaking – allowing the proceedings to feel more natural than they might’ve, otherwise. Similarly, Caro and director of photography Adam Arkapaw (True Detective season one) create a nice sense of time and place, not just with their portrayal of the title city but also the surrounding Californian hillsides, beaches, and working fields.
Caro also shows a sensitivity in terms of her approach to characterization, allowing for supporting characters in McFarland, USA to feel more like real people than stereotypes – especially, when it comes to the women in the story. The film, as mentioned before, is first and foremost about Jim – with his cross-country team’s leader, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), being the feature’s second most important player – but those around Costner as the lead are given room to have a bit more depth than is customary for this type of genre fare.
Costner and Pratts (The Bridge) are both solid playing, respectively, the gruff but well-meaning Coach Jim White and the strong/sensitive Thomas Valles in McFarland, USA. Unfortunately, the other student athletes in the film – played by such lesser-knowns as Hector Duran, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Sergio Avelar, and Michael Aguero – are never really fleshed out beyond a first impression. The same holds true for Ramiro Rodriguez (the heavyset “anchor” of the cross-country team), but he does at least get an arc in the story – one that makes it easy to root for him to succeed.
The McFarland, USA supporting cast includes familiar faces in Maria Bello (Prisoners) and Morgan Saylor (Homeland) as members of Jim’s family – along with Elsie Fisher (voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me franchise) playing Jim’s younger daughter. While they’re stuck playing fairly stock characters, they handle the roles well. The rest of the cast is equally capable (if under-used), with the standouts including Diana Maria Riva (another Bridge cast member) as the no-nonsene mother to team members The Diaz Brothers.
McFarland, USA is by-the-numbers underdogs sports fare, but good direction and performances make it a respectable addition to the genre. Like last month’s release Black or White (also starring Costner), its message about race/class-based inequality and tolerance aren’t exactly ground-breaking, but it makes up for that by having a solid humanist core.
The film might not wind up being as fondly remembered as, say, Remember the Titans, but for fans of this kind of inspirational based-on-real-events entertainment, there’s enough good here to consider giving this one a look in theaters.
McFarland, USA is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 129 minutes long and is Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language.