McFarland, USA (2015) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material, some violence and language 
Running Time: 128 min.

Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Morgan Saylor, Sergio Avelar, Hector Duran, Rafaiel Martinez, Diana Maria Riva, Elsie Fisher, Ben Bray, Rigo Sanchez
Niki Caro
Screenplay: Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Grant Thompson

Review published February 8, 2015

McFarland USA is a likeable movie hampered by too many manufactured movie moments that get in the way of the true inspirational story. Disney has made a mini-franchise making essentially the same formula with different sports over the years, including Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans, Miracle, Glory Road, The Rookie, Invincible, Secretariat and Million Dollar Arm. Saccharine storyline and all, some I've still fallen for, some I remain unconvinced. McFarland USA presents the biggest challenge of them all for me.  So much of it works wonderfully in that formula, and yet there are a few subplots that drain a good deal of the overall enjoyment.

Set in 1987, Kevin Costner (Black or White, Draft Day) stars as frequently fired high school football coach Jim White, whose propensity to bump heads with students and school administration has blackened his reputation to the point where only a dirt-poor high school in a central California agricultural community will give him a chance.  At first fearful and resentful of the situation of living in a predominantly Latino community, White finds a new lease on life as the gym coach in a town full of young kids that are too poor to play others sports, or have a bike, or car -- running is just a way of life.  He starts a rag-tag cross-country team of kids who really don't believe in themselves, and through the course of the film, everyone goes from whiners to potential winners.

In addition to the underdog sports formula film, McFarland USA is falls under the 'white teacher inspires the troubled minority students to make something of themselves' genre.  Not that there aren't good movies in this arena, and when the film is just Costner and the young men, the movie actually works.  Many of the film's successful moments come through the quality casting, and a good deal also from director Niki Caro's (North Country, Whale Rider) consummate skill at finding the right emotional angles for inspirational drama.

As fun and inspirational as I find the story as presented, many the parts that don't work for me are just about everything having to do with White's home life, especially how in the matter of just a couple of months the family goes from living in fear and misery of this town where there isn't much to do and people to connect with, to regarding it as the only place they'd want to live.  It seems incredulous that a scene in which one of White's daughters is put into mortal jeopardy and somehow spun as another reason they decide they really enjoy raising their kids in McFarland.

Lots of this would be excised in a normal film, but we have to go through all of it just for the ultimate decision in White's mind as to whether he will look elsewhere for a place to raise his family, or whether he'll embrace McFarland as the place he finds fulfillment.  At over two hours in length, judicious trimming of the not-very-convincing love affair White's family feels for the community before the first quarter of school is even up feels forced and manufactured, as is the awful set-up and delivery of a budding romance between White's eldest daughter (Saylor, "Homeland") and his main track star, Thomas (Pratts, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones).

Plus, it's all needless.  The real Jim White has three daughters, not just two, as depicted in the film, and the girls were already in college by the time the events of the movie took place, not in grade school living at home -- a MAJOR contrivance that makes all of the condensed and convenient things I didn't like about the film unforgivable to include.

All of it feels too abbreviated, especially when White, who had yet to win a race -- he didn't even place third at this point -- gets a huge offer to coach in a more hi-tech facility in predominantly white school in an affluent community. In reality, White didn't move to McFarland in 1987, but moved there in 1964 (when the town was not 95% Latino) to become a 5th-grade teacher when he and his wife had just finished college, and started teaching PE at the high school level there in 1980.  Also, he didn't create the cross-country team at McFarland High School, he merely brought it back after a year off.  He also coached a girls' team as well).  Given White's checkered past (well, in the movie, anyway), as well as the fact that all he's done by this point is to take a team that wasn't expected to compete and make them on the verge of viable, seems ridiculous on its face, especially without any sort of interview or discussion prior to the offer.  I'm guessing offers like this did come, but probably much further down the road of success than the movie shows.

The film does foster a good sense of community and unity that should always be strived for, though it is a Disney film, so most of the rough edges have been sanded off for the sake of a family film dynamic.  The movie does go out of its way to not be particularly offensive in its depictions of ethnic customs and ways of life, but it does often encroach into being somewhat patronizing of the Latino community and characters in a way that feels inauthentic at times. For a movie that should have been about inspiring Latino teens, it sure feels like it is aiming for elderly white filmgoers in its approach to storytelling.

McFarland USA is a truly inspiring story ensconced in formula sports flick that is, at once, too heavy-handed in its approach to family drama, yet also too light-hearted in its look at a struggling, low-income community of migrant farmworkers who are largely overlooked by the majority of the population even in its own county, much less country.  It's certainly a movie that has a good deal of likeable characters and a compelling storyline to put them in, and if they weren't sandbagged by the formula narrative, you'd probably be getting a different review from me, even if it is 90% Hollywood hogwash. 

The moving depiction of the real-life people the film inspired that plays just before the end credits nearly makes up for it, however, which further illustrates my main point:  More reality, less fantasy, and this race to our hearts would have been a cinch to win.

Qwipster's rating::

2015 Vince Leo