Release: Friday, February 20, 2015
Written by: Christopher Cleveland; Bettina Gilois; Grant Thompson
Directed by: Niki Caro
Is this the part where I openly admit to becoming teary-eyed watching a Disney film? Or is that just way too honest?
. . . . . hello . . . ? Guys . . . . . . ?
Ah well, whatever. Good chance I’m just talking to myself now, but nonetheless it’s nice being reminded of how many ways movies can offer surprises. Family-friendly McFarland USA is the most recent example, transcending mediocrity while still relying on shopworn techniques to construct its story, one that is as wholesome as it is sensational given its drawing upon real life events.
Kevin Costner is a disgraced high school football coach named Jim White who finds himself having to relocate his family to Nowheresville — er, excuse me, that’s McFarland, a tiny Californian town few maps have ever bothered mentioning — as he seeks another coaching job at a high school that’s predominantly Hispanic. Although hired because of his football résumé Jim suggests to the school’s principal, much to the chagrin of Assistant Coach Jenks (Chris Ellis), that McFarland High start up a cross country running team. He sees in several members of the squad some serious talent, but talent that’s more useful off the gridiron. Having no experience coaching track or cross country before Jim’s chances of finding success are pretty apparent from the get-go, but it’s not until he manages to corral seven young boys, including the unstoppable Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) that a real opportunity begins to present itself.
McFarland USA begs comparisons to the inferiorly budgeted and marketed Spare Parts, a production featuring George Lopez that shines a light upon four young Latino high school students possessing brilliant minds but lacking the financial and societal support needed for their potential to be fully realized. Trade intellect for athleticism, Arizona for California and a talk-show host for a seasoned action star and you get the latest effort from director Niki Caro. The drama at times mirrors that of the kids of Carl Hayden High, in particular a scene in which Jim White drives his rapidly rising young star athletes to the beach so they can have their first glimpse of the ocean. It should be said that this sequence is handled with much more grace and passion but it’s difficult shaking that feeling of déjà vu if you’ve sat through both films.
But where Spare Parts had the difficult task of selling audiences on the magnitude of the motivation required for these immigrant youths to compete in something as obscure as an underwater robotics competition, McFarland USA embraces its broader audience appeal by crafting a sense of warm community and fictionalizing a rallying cry behind an upstart sports team. Cross country running makes for an interesting twist on an all-too-eager-to-inspire genre. At the risk of scribbling out yet another cliché, we’ve been beaten over the head more than enough times with the pressures, heartbreaks and pitfalls of football stardom. As an avid sports fan, I say this not because my goal is to mislead anyone but because it’s simply true: football dramas are far too easy to find.
It’s also no secret Disney prefers creating cinema that values community-building rather than the destruction thereof, and McFarland USA continues in that tradition. As the Whites transition from minority status in a town where no one’s a stranger to another, to becoming the reason McFarland begins receiving recognition amongst the more affluent surrounding suburbs there is a surprising amount of satisfaction gained in experiencing the growth, both personal and communal. Jim goes from being jokingly nick-named ‘Blanco’ to being revered as Coach as a series of growing pains galvanizes the group over the fall of 1987.
Added to this, Caro’s ability to homogenize these two cultures cohabiting within the Californian border. We see Jim’s eldest daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) entering into young womanhood upon her 15th birthday during an extended vignette that serves as a highlight of the film when her father throws her a “quinceañera,” and her burgeoning romance with Thomas (arguably the best runner) furthers the notion that this family is not likely to abandon McFarland, even if Jim may have better job prospects on the horizon given his remarkable achievements. The respect between both groups is something that helps to balance out the film’s fixation on competition during the race day events.
There’s nothing truly original about McFarland USA, and yet the film excels in delivering entertainment and packaging an inspirational true story unlike many mainstream sports dramas have in recent memory. Anchored by wonderful performances from Costner and Bello in tandem and visually enhanced by a vibrant Disney color palette — this is a beautifully shot film, with particular emphasis on the landscapes during the races as well as the costume design — you might find yourself every now and then counting cliches but at the end you shouldn’t be too surprised to find yourself secretly cheering.
Recommendation: McFarland USA relies on some old-hat filmmaking techniques but that doesn’t distract from the pure enjoyment of watching this town come together. There is so much to like about this one that anything less than a solid recommendation just wouldn’t be fair. Any fan of Kevin Costner shouldn’t pass this one up, either.
Running Time: 129 mins.
Quoted: “That’s not Danny Diaz. . !”
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