McFarland, USA

Kevin Costner urges one of his runners on.

Kevin Costner urges one of his runners on.

(2015) True Sports Drama (Disney) Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Diana Maria Riva, Omar Leyva, Valente Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher, Martha Higareda, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Ben Bray, Vanessa Martinez, Adriana Diaz Chapa. Directed by Niki Caro

The American dream is a finicky thing. We all want to achieve it, but there are places in this country where just surviving day to day is about all anyone can hope for. When that happens, we must learn to rely on each other to be our own safety net.

McFarland in California’s San Joaquin Valley is such a place. Made up mostly of farm workers (mostly of Mexican descent) on nearby agribusiness, the town touts itself as America’s Fruit Basket. The reality however is that there are few services and almost no money for what they do have.

Jim White (Costner) is coaching football at a suburban high school when he gets into an altercation with a spoiled brat of a player which ends up with a frustrated White throwing a shoe at the locker which then takes an unintended ricochet and hitting the player. Adios, tony suburban high school job and bienvenidos best job that he can get, in the middle of nowhere where the only restaurant in town has a six item menu and none of them are burgers.

White feels like a fish out of water and his family are also feeling like aliens. They are awakened every morning by a rooster crowing and none of them speak any amount of Spanish. He’s the new P.E. coach at McFarland high, as well as the assistant football coach and he’s not even that when he refuses to put a player in who is exhibiting signs of a concussion and the head coach demands that Principal Camillo (V. Rodriguez) remove the prickly assistant coach, which Camillo does although he can’t really afford to fire him, since they have no substitutes or back-ups. So White continues as the P.E. teacher as well as a life sciences teacher.

One of the things that White notices is that some of his kids – most of whom get up at 4 AM to go out and work in the fields before coming to school for 8 hours and then returning to the fields until dark – are incredibly fast and durable owing to that many of them run from school to the fields miles away every day and have been since they were ten or twelve years old. With the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body of high school athletics in the Golden State, initiating a statewide cross country championship (this takes place in 1987 just for the record) White has a brilliant idea; establish a cross country team, do well enough to get some attention and then get a job offer in some civilized suburban community where he and his long-suffering wife (Bello) and kids, young Jamie (Fisher) and soon-to-graduate Julie (Saylor) belong.

He recruits a team by hook or by crook and ends up with mercurial Thomas Valles (Pratts), the swiftest of the bunch; Johnny Sameniego (Duran), an easygoing sort; David (R. Martinez) and Damacio (Aguero) Diaz as well as their chunky but all-heart brother Danny Diaz (R. Rodriguez) and lady’s man Jose Cardenas (Ortiz). They have raw talent but not a lot of technique or discipline – nor a lot of desire in what they consider to be a foolish pursuit. Cross country is, after all, a sport for prep schools and rarefied air.

What they do have however is a solid work ethic, ingrained in them by their hours in the fields, and a sense of family and community. In fact the latter is central to the existence of McFarland – everybody in McFarland is family, to the point that Jim’s wife is moved to say “No place has ever felt like home to me as much as this one.”

Still, as the team begins to get some success, White begins to attract the attention of schools like Palo Alto High, who have a large budget and a history of winning. With the state championships within reach, will Jim commit to his runners the same way they’ve committed to him or will he move on and get the kind of lifestyle he always dreamed of?

This could easily have been just another sports underdog movie and there are always a few of them every year. Disney seems to be the most active purveyor of them, and in all fairness they have brought it down to a science. There are some formulaic aspects to most of these movies – the introduction, the first failed attempts, the coming together, the falling apart, the reuniting and the triumph – and some of those are present here. When you’re watching one, you know intellectually that the team/individual is going to triumph. Nobody, after all, wants to go to a movie to see someone fail.

Therefore it’s the journey to that triumph that makes these sorts of movies successful and the reason McFarland USA succeeds is that the filmmakers in the person of director Niki (Whale Rider) Caro from New Zealand who shows a surprising empathy for the Mexican-American culture. We are shown how they support one another and the innate friendliness and warmth of the people. Sure, there’s crime (there is a scene where White mistakes a car club for a Latino gang and later a real gang takes on the car club) but there always is where there is poverty and there’s plenty of that to go around in McFarland.

Although the racial aspect is played up, the filmmakers surprisingly kind of gloss over the racism directed to the McFarland team (one elitist runner makes a few cracks but is shut down by one of the runners for McFarland early in the movie) and towards the McFarland community in general; I would have liked to have seen that avenue explored a little more but I’m not surprised that it wasn’t; Disney is sensitive about such things and tend to turn a blind eye even in films in which those elements are a central feature. The Mouse, after all, prefers a world where such ugliness doesn’t exist.

But exist it does, so you’ll have to just assume that the team endured rougher treatment than is shown here. Generally speaking, the film isn’t about that in any case – the movie celebrates the sense of community that the Mexican-Americans of McFarland have created.

Costner tends to thrive on these sorts of roles and he does so here, giving White a kind of craggy resourcefulness and a willingness to learn about the culture into which he’s been thrust (he goes out on a Saturday morning to pick cabbage with his students in order to experience what they’re going through). The more he bonds with his team, the more about the culture he becomes involved with.  After missing his daughter’s birthday dinner, he throws her a quinceanera, a Mexican celebration of a young girl’s 15th birthday which is a really big deal in that culture. It’s one of the movie’s most charming scenes.

Most of the Hispanic cast is solid, with Mora getting plaudits as a friendly store owner and Leyva as a skeptical dad who wants to pull his sons from the team – every moment they’re practicing with the team they’re not working in the fields and that means money not going into the family’s pocket or more to the point, food not going onto their table. Riva plays his wife, one of those no-nonsense practical Mexican wives that in Southern California are as common as palm trees and as beautiful in their own way as the Pacific.

Some critics have accused the movie about being patronizing towards Hispanics in that the movie portrays White as the unifying force that brings the team together and inspires them to win, sort of a “they couldn’t have done it without him great white hope” sort of thing. I didn’t see it that way; for one thing, the reality of the situation is that this predominantly Hispanic high school did have a white cross country coach and he did lead them to an amazing run of success, but the movie isn’t about a white guy showing the Hispanics how to do it – if anything, he learns more from them than they do from him.

 

I found myself drawn in by the film. Sure it has all the cliches of a typical underdog true life sports movie, but then again I’m a sucker for those cliches so it doesn’t bother me quite so much. What I really liked was the sense of family and community spirit that the movie celebrates. While I can’t say for certain that every Hispanic community is like that, I know that they do continue to exist and I, for one, wouldn’t mind living in that sort of community myself.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely promotes a sense of family and community. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit formulaic. Could have tackled racism aspect harder.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language, brief violence and some thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner attended high school for one year in Visalia, only 40 miles north of McFarland.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Maps to the Stars

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