McFarland USA is that steady, dependable inspirational sports film that Disney churns out and releases at will. The formula is practically as old as the medium itself, but director Niki Caro and her team have crafted a touching human story that supersedes the visually uninteresting sport at the heart of the tale. Featuring well-drawn lead characters and a handling of Mexican-American relations that is compassionate and realistic, McFarland USA is just feel-good cinema.
The year is 1987. Kevin Costner stars as Jim White, who’s fired from his high school football coaching job for hurling a cleated shoe at a smart-aleck player as the film opens. After the incident his only opportunity is to relocate his family to McFarland, California, a Mexican community, where he’s accepted a coaching/physical education position at the high school. He quickly discovers the football team is terrible, but that many of the players have incredible speed and stamina as potential cross-country runners. White forms a team of seven of the best and most driven runners, ultimately taking them to the state finals.
The film wisely spends the majority of its runtime centering on White’s acclimation to McFarland and the bonds created between he and his team. McFarland is one of the poorest cities in the United States, and many of the boys not only go to school full-time, but also pick fruits and vegetables before and after. White and his family’s ability to gradually integrate with the community, particularly as the scrappy underdogs start to win meets, adds a huge layer to an otherwise routine story arc. This dramatic immersion shines in scenes where he implores the boys to think about college and achieving what their intense work ethic will allow them to, and not settling for the status quo of being a “picker.”
Kevin Costner has always had a unique ability for single-handedly carrying movies, and McFarland USA is no exception. He’s in just about every frame of the movie and exudes the toughness of a coach trying to bring out the best in his runners and the warmth of a coach who truly cares. He handles the film’s more poignant scenes, of which there are many, with an understated intensity that results in an unexpected amount of raw emotion. The supporting players aren’t given nearly as much to do. The talented Maria Bello plays the standard coach’s wife and Carlos Pratts, as the most talented but unrefined member of the team, is really the only of the bunch fleshed out in a meaningful way.
McFarland USA won’t win any awards for originality, but it’s a prime example of a proven formula done right. Caro, whose previous directorial credits include the excellent and similarly moving Whale Rider and North Country, brings a freshness and subtle electrical jolt to the material. Sensitive and inspirational while avoiding cheesiness for the most part, McFarland USA is a worthwhile family film. And those don’t come around that often.
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 128 Minutes
Rating: PG for thematic material, some violence and language.
Theatrical Release: February 20, 2015
Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois & Grant Thompson
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Carlos Pratts, Martha Higareda