McFarland, USA Review
by Jennifer Stripe
It should surprise no one that McFarland USA is intended to be a heartwarming and inspirational drama. Produced by Walt Disney Pictures and the same production team behind true-life sports narratives as Miracle, Invincible and Secretariat, the film is an invariable underdog story: underprivileged kids facing overwhelming odds and a down-on-his-luck coach form an unlikely friendship and ultimately achieve the impossible. Largely thanks to talented art and acting direction as well as an eminently likeable star, McFarland expertly avoids overt sentimentality, never forcing you into feeling something unearned, nor relying upon evident feel good themes or the soundtrack to do the work. Instead what follows is an authentic, true-to-life telling of otherwise unremarkable and overlooked athletes transformed into championship contenders.
Director Niki Caro and well cast ensemble, anchored by Hollywood veteran Kevin Coster, give us the story of Jim White, a washed up high school football coach, who begins the film at a career low point. After losing his job following a hot tempered outburst, White moves his family to a cracker-box house, in a dicey, poor neighborhood in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where he’s procured a last-chance teaching position at McFarland High School. After making a poor first impression, White soon takes notice of a group of Latino teenagers with a talent for running and stamina developed after years of grueling work, picking crops both before and after school to help support their families. With the principle’s support, he decides to start a cross country team, built around the super-fast Thomas Valles, knowing nothing about long distance running or even track, but willing to put in the effort and somehow believing that his team has the potential to qualify for the first-ever state championship meet.
Beyond the main sports narrative, McFarland USA also offers a powerful immersion into the culture of these Mexican immigrants and the taxing lifestyle that is part and parcel of their work. For a film that could have easily been rendered a clichéd portrayal, Caro was careful to choose specific examples that poignantly depict the difficult and harsh reality of life in a migrant community. While not a stranger to tough times, in this world, Jim White is an outsider. Until, in an important scene, both for the character and the audience’s understanding, he works the fields with his runners for a day, returning home exhausted and nearly crippled from the back breaking labor.
All things considered, McFarland owes much of its commercial appeal and likeability to Costner’s convincing portrayal as a flawed and arguably difficult guy with fundamentally moral instincts. Like few other actors, he is capable of embodying an ethical ideal through his forceful, yet understated performance and infuses the picture with an emblematic, all-American quality and believability. Admittedly, the role of Jim White bears obvious similarly to other sports figures he’s portrayed over his career, but Costner’s unpretentious interpretation yields a genuine, salt-of-the-earth character that lends the audience to believe that heroes can truly come from anywhere.
For the sports enthusiast and those in search of an uplifting true story, McFarland USA is a worthy film to see. Don’t expect overwhelming cinematic brilliance, but to expect to leave inspired.