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McFarland USA (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

McFarland USA

McFarland USA


Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Maria Bello, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher, Valente Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Michael Aguero, Diana Maria Riva, Omar Leyva, Martha Higareda, Natalia Cordova-Buckley and Chris Ellis Jr.

Screenplay by Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson.

Directed by Niki Caro.

Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.  128 minutes.  Rated PG.

There is a pretty hard and fast formula in sports movies.

You have an aging coach, down-on-his-luck, disgraced, accepting a job well under his pay grade as a last chance.  He arrives and finds a group of outsiders and losers, oddball types that no other team would ever want.  None of them are really interested in their sports career, but the coach is the only one who sees the natural competitors underneath the surface and the athletic ability that no one else has ever noticed.

The team starts to work together, resisting the coach but putting in the time.  The team starts competing as hopelessly inept, beaten soundly by all comers.  However, as they work together the coach teaches the athletes about teamwork and the team teaches the jaded coach important life lessons.  Suddenly, against all odds, the team actually starts winning.

There will be conflicts, fights and misunderstanding, but eventually the team of lovable losers will meet up in the championship to prove their worth to the battle-hardened league superstars, who have all the talent in the world, but have lost their hunger and humility.

Each movie has little quirks, but pretty much every sports film since The Bad News Bears in 1976 – that’s 39 years, guys – has been a broad variation on that storyline.

McFarland USA does run down that well-traveled track, but thankfully it does it pretty darned well.

McFarland USA‘s twist on the genre is an intelligent one.  These athletes are immigrant migrant workers, teens whose bodies are toned and hardened from hard hours of field work.  They have learned to run long distances because they simply cannot afford cars to get from place to place.

Oddly, though, for a film that looks at the hardships of its Mexican-American community, McFarland USA quite studiously avoids discussing the students legal statuses and immigration problems, which seems a little bit squirrelly in an otherwise serious look at the problems of the title town’s Latin population.

Into McFarland comes Jim White (and yes, they get a good amount of mileage from his name, however White is a real person and it really is his name), a football coach who had been fired from his last job for angrily hurting one of his players who was mouthing off.  It wasn’t the first problem White had with his anger and he was just out of options, finally taking a job as assistant football coach in this California border town just to feed his wife (Maria Bello) and daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher).

Almost immediately White is butting heads with the bullish head coach (Chris Ellis Jr.) and is kicked off the team.  However, while watching the players practice for ball he realized there were a few who could run miles without even tiring.  He suggests a cross-country track team to the principal of the school (Valente Rodriguez), who puts White in charge of the new sport.  White knows nothing about track and field and his students have never competed, but before long he has a team.  And as he comes to know the runners, he and his family are welcomed into the tight-knit Mexican community of the town.

Yet, occasionally, even though the film sugarcoats the hardships these kids face, there are moments of real truth and beauty.  For example when Coach White agrees to work with his students out in the fields for one day and realizes the adversity that his students deal with every day.

Even more eye-opening is a scene when the coach takes his kids to learn how to run on hills by going to a quarry with dozens of man-made tarp-covered hills.  Only after making the run over and over does the best runner explain to the coach that these hills are giant piles of almonds that he, his family and his friends have picked.  This scene gives the film an insightfulness of which it can use more.

McFarland USA does not dig this deep often, because it is a feel-good sports story.  It works very well in that way.  However, its ability to look deeper than just winning the big race makes it more special than it could be.  I wish the filmmakers had the courage to go all the way with this aspect, but they have still made a fine movie.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: June 2, 2015.

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