We’ve seen it before. A coach makes a poor decision and must pack his things and move to another city, trying to adjust to a new culture and develop a connection with a new group of kids. Yawn. But there’s something hovering over McFarland, USA that makes the existence of a clichéd story tolerable. Of exactly what that thing is, I’m uncertain. It could be Kevin Costner, a remarkable actor who hasn’t failed to bring his everyman charm to every role of every movie I’ve ever seen him in. Alternatively, it could be that no expiration date exists for a powerful story. Here is a film that sets up its characters and story arcs in familiar ways that we already know the resolutions of, but we still care because they are set up with passion and they’re too effective to turn away from.
In the film, we see Kevin Costner in yet another sports-related movie that stacks up alongside Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game, The Upside of Anger, and most recently, Draft Day. Here, he plays Joe White, which proves to be an unfortunate last name as he finds himself with a new job coaching the football team of a high-school in the small town of McFarland, a predominantly Latino community located in California’s Central Valley. This is a community that lives a simple existence, focusing on physical labor instead of higher education, with most people making their living by picking in fields and finding whatever work they can get. As a somewhat wealthy white teacher/coach that has a family with a good life (at least in comparison with the kids at the new school), the lives and circumstances of these kids become Joe’s primary subject of investigation, desperate to learn more about their lives and try, to the best of his ability, to intervene.
The school hires him as the football coach (well, “assistant coach”) even after an act of violence toward one of his students got him fired from his former coaching position. However, as he spends more time with the football players that clearly don’t want much to do with football, Joe realizes that a few of them do share something in common with each other. They can run. Fast. So Joe goes to the board (that being a single man, Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez, whom you may know as Ernie from the sitcom George Lopez), in an effort to bring together a cross-country team. Of course, being the inspirational based-on-a-true-story Disney production that it is, the movie goes on to show us how this group of uneducated runners ended up changing their community, going on to state finals and yada-yada-yada. But really, this is the joy of McFarland, USA. It spends its first half allowing us to connect with these students, all through Joe’s eyes, and because of that, when the clichés come (and boy, do they), we don’t really mind. We’re invested in a true story that is worth caring for.
In the first half of the film, Costner’s Coach White is adjusting, a kind of fish-out-of-water, shocked to see what these young students are going through in their home life. He tries to relate to them on a personal level, even going as far as picking with them in the fields. Really, the first half of the movie is excellent, as it takes what could be a tired and terribly nauseating wealth of clichés and instead becomes an endeavor of character building that works. Part of this is thanks to not only the script, but the actors that portray this team. Carlos Pratts plays Thomas, who serves as the team captain and the main character in the mix of the cross-country team. He is the character with whom Joe relates to most, and he is the one that the film tends to focus on whenever it tries to get serious. Similarly, the rest of the cast, young hopefuls that find their selves in their debut feature, are excellent and promising.
McFarland, USA doesn’t always work, as it sometimes takes its clichés to unnecessary levels. In the first act of the film, we meet a sketchy looking group of men driving low riders and whistling at Costner’s daughter on the sidewalk. This group is meant to look like a Mexican cartel, in an unbelievably stereotypical fashion. The film then pulls the rug out from under us (this is a PG-rated Disney production, after all) and convinces us that they aren’t really bad guys. But then something dramatically dark in tone happens in the third act that takes the movie down a few notches, not even coming close to making the emotional impact it thinks it does. White’s wife (Maria Bello, giving a strong performance despite not given much screen time), takes this event particularly hard. The movie often fluctuates between the trouble in the lives of the students versus the minor problems in White’s own family (his daughter not getting a birthday cake is an example), and it handles this fluctuation quite well.
The film tries to get us to realize that these kids have it rough, and for the most part, it succeeds. In one scene, Principal Camillo (Ernie from George Lopez just made everything alright in the world) points out the fact that there is a prison located beside the school, and notes the abundant cases of transfers from the latter to the former. Also, the movie touches on mature themes, including one incredible scene in which Costner’s Coach White tries to talk a student, contemplating suicide, off of a bridge. Moments like these make the movie stand out.
Once the first half passes and we’ve begun to care about these kids, the similarities of other formulaic sports dramas creep in and the movie then becomes a guess-what-happens-next-and-get-it-right-every-time kind of game. In this case, though, we have Kevin Costner to sympathize with, a set of believable characters played by inspired actors, and a filmmaking crew with a heart. That makes McFarland, USA a winner.
2 hrs. 9 mins.
Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language
Starring Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Valente Rodriguez
Written by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Grant Thompson
Directed by Niki Caro