Dir: Niki Caro
Starring: Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Elsie Fisher, and Morgan Saylor
How do you make a cross-country running film interesting? You hire an accomplished director and utilize Disney’s tried and true sports movie formula. Get a group of underdogs, add insurmountable odds, base it on true events and that’s the groundwork for this successful formula. “Glory Road”, “Miracle”, and “Remember the Titans” are just a few of the sports movies viewers still mention when listing their favorite sport themed films. It’s not a complicated form by any means but this structure works by combining heartfelt and uplifting sentiments. Director Niki Caro utilizes culture to assist in establishing the dynamic between the characters and the society that defines them. Though more could have been done with this topic it doesn’t hinder “McFarland, USA” from being an enjoyably simplistic film.
Coach Jim White is moving his family to a small California community after an altercation with a player during a football game that lead to his dismissal. Desperate for teachers, McFarland High School hires White, or “Blanco” as his predominantly Hispanic students refer to him, for a staff position. White and his family are greeted with open arms in the community, though it is a bit of a culture shock for them. White notices that the students work hard, most of them assisting the family in the picking fields, and run everywhere they go. White proposes that the school start a cross county team, a first of its kind in 1987.
A mountain, an early adversary for these young runners, plays an obvious metaphor. Whether the conflict of being more than a field worker or understanding the conflicts of a broken home, nothing comes easy for these young men and Coach White recognizes this early on. Though the community of McFarland is poor they are also rich in heart, taking pride in important matters like family and community. Director Niki Caro understands these bonds and utilizes them within the primary physical attribute of the sport they are participating in, which is ultimately endurance. These young men understand this situation, some even becoming complaisant with the life being shaped without their input, but they endure for more than themselves. They endure for their family. And when they become a team, they endure for each other. Till finally, during the course of the race, the runners recognize they must endure for themselves. It’s a simple narrative device that Caro implements and for the most part it works effectively. However, there are other aspects to this story that are underutilized. Violence exists for a brief moment in only one scene and any approach to a realistic understanding of the world these kids grow up in is left in the background, but that’s another movie completely.
Kevin Costner has always been good as the surly sympathetic kind, here providing the brash speeches of tough love while quietly exhibiting the caring side of his personality. Costner is always good at making everyone better as well. Scenes with the young cast, especially Carlos Pratts who is the most dramatic character of the young actors, are assisted by Costner’s skill but each of the actors fit their specific roles with ease.
“McFarland USA” aims to present a series of uplifting moments with just enough surface level complications to make the journey meaningful. Any exploration of deeper correlations within the characters and the society and culture they are living in are relegated to supportive attributes. This film simply aims at being a purely entertaining sports movie, to which it succeeds.
3.50 out of 5.00