McFarland, USA ✮✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
As anyone who has ever cheered on a son or daughter at an inter-school track meet knows, cross country is the least of the spectator sports. Runners gather at the start line and then disappear over the nearest rise, eventually wending their way through a 3.1 mile course. Parents usually don’t catch a glimpse of their kids until another 20-25 minutes.
So much for the thrill of the chase.
Disney quickens the pace considerably of the event in “McFarland, USA,” a fact-based story about a cross country team in “one of the poorest towns in America,” located at the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley. It’s here, amid dusty orchards and irrigation ditches, that a reluctant high school coach named Jim White (Kevin Costner) pulls together a squad of seven boys who will go on to become state champions in 1987 … ’88 … ’89 … ’90 … Well, let’s just say that the heavily Hispanic town known for its sweltering summers and produce dominated the sport for almost a quarter of a century.
If this sounds like another in the long list of inspirational Disney sports dramas, that’s because it is. “McFarland, USA” is very much in the tradition of the studio’s feel-good hits, includig “Miracle” (ice hockey), “The Rookie” (baseball), and, of course, “Remember the Titans” (football). The real antecedent, however, may be “The Little Giants,” a 1960 charmer about a Monterrey, Mexico, Little League team that took the 1957 World Series.
That “McFarland” doesn’t fall prey to formula-itis is due in large part to Costner’s cranky coach White and Niki Caro’s mostly unsentimental direction. (Caro, a New Zealander, is best known for “Whale Rider,” about sexism within the Maori community.) Her new film is as much about second chances, migrant working conditions and the cultural divide between Anglos and Latinos as it is about the loneliness of the long-distance runner. Jim and Cheryl White (Maria Bello) and their two kids (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) initially want nothing to do with McFarland. During their first night out they run into a procession of low-riders, which they take for gangbangers. The only reason they’re in McFarland is because dad, who deals with anger issues, has been bounced from school to school. McFarland High may be his last chance.
Even after he realizes many of his P.E. students have amazing stamina ‒ because they dash from school to their work as pickers every day ‒ White isn’t all that enthusiastic about coaching cross country. This changes when he gets to know the boys, their sacrifices and fears, and the community takes his family under its wing, even throwing a quinceañera or Sweet 15 party for his daughter. Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) is the fastest runner but to compete must first conquer his own demons; David Diaz (Rafael Martinez) is the first to join and most enthusiastic; Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez) is the heavyweight who makes up in heart what he lacks in speed.
I know what you’re thinking. This is another in a long line of insufferable white-savior movies a la “Dangerous Minds” and “The Blind Side”; the kind of conscience-salving entertainment that “Selma” director Ava DuVernay has been railing against these last few months. Yes, and no. What saves it from falling into that implicitly racist trap is a coach who learns more than he imparts. Yes, White attempts to run a mile in his boys’ shoes ‒ even chopping cabbage in the fields ‒ but he fails in these symbolic gestures and, eventually, must admit that his learning curve is a lot steeper than the hills the boys conquer in meets, some of which pit McFarland against Palo Alto High and other Bay Area schools.
Unfortunately, for all its goose-bump-inducing moments, “McFarland” leans heavily on dumb gringo jokes (the family couldn’t be more shell-shocked if they’d landed in a third-world shantytown) and, in the homestretch, reverts to cliché-ridden melodrama, including Romeo and Juliet subplot, threatened suicide, gang violence and, of course, the stirring win-or-lose-you’re-all-winners pep talk. Still, “McFarland” should elicit the expected cheers, as much for its young ensemble as its crusty veteran. In the early running, Costner is all about ego and what’s best for him and his family; he may even be using the boys to land a cushy new job. And it’s this unsportsmanlike conduct that makes this one of the more memorable recent sports movies.
McFARLAND, USA With Kevin Costner, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Maria Bellow, Morgan Saylor. Directed by Niki Caro; scripted by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Grant Thompson. 128 min. Rated PG (slight profanity)