McFarland USA

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Release: Friday, February 20, 2015

[Theater]

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.

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3-0Recommendation: 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.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not Danny Diaz. . !”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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25 thoughts on “McFarland USA

  1. McFarland was one of the better movies I’ve seen this year despite it being very, very predictable. Funny how once the team wins, all the other problems sort themselves out.

  2. This is one of the MANY 2015 films that I just couldn’t get up the excitement to go see. But it sounds as if this one is worth the trip. I love seeing Costner back in front of the camera. I’ve always loved the guy’s work.

    • I can understand the lack of interest Keith, there’s not much that distinguishes this from the lot of uplifting sports stories based on true events. I had a great time with it and to be honest I kind of stumbled in to this after a long period of denying its existence. Lol. Maybe that helped kick the review into a positive light for me.

  3. Yes! Costner back at his best and leaving dreck like The Next Three Days behind. The world is a better place with Kev making movies and being the leading man. I say again; yes!

    • I found it more than decent actually, I went in thinking it was going to be very eye-roll-inducing but I found myself cheering way more than expected. Thank you Natasha! 😀

  4. I’m so glad you liked it. I really did too. It told a story about functioning American poverty. Families trying to raise good people which you hardly ever see. I really appreciated that and maybe it was just I went in with low expectations but I really loved it. Right up there with Hoosiers, Miracle and Warrior.

    • Very great comment! I’m going to maybe put this down a notch from Hoosiers specifically, b/c that’s a personal favorite of all time. There’s not many sports movies (or movies period) that I like more than it. But you’re right; I think McFarland USA belongs in a pretty small group of effective and heartwarming family-oriented sports dramas. I’m glad you enjoyed this as well. 🙂

      • As someone who lived in Indiana I’d agree Hoosiers and Rudy are the two best ever. I also love Warrior. Hoop Dreams would also make tops of my list.
        With Mcfarland I thought the sports was really just window dressing to the story. Before I served my mission for my church I had this idea about poor “scary” parts of town and the people there. I just loved how this shows what I discovered- every neighborhood in America there are people trying to raise a good family. We would go to the roughest parts of city and meet the most amazing people. It’s hard to think of that many movies which show that type of story. You know what I mean?

  5. This never screened down here, but it actually sounds like something I’d be interested in as well. Bah I hate the lack of film releases down here, but there is no market so it isn’t surprising.

    I reckon I’ll catch this when its on BR. Colour me interested Tom! Great write up

    • Yeah, I can’t see there being an entirely large market in Australia for a cross country running film; even if it stars someone as prominent as Mr. Costner. I enjoyed this a fair bit man. It’s more than worth your time if you want to seek out a rental some way.

      Cheers for the comment. Got your email, btw. I’ll be putting together that post very soon. Thanks again. If you know anyone else who would like to contribute please forward along the message!

  6. Nice review! I am always in the mood for a decent Costner and Sports fix (I actually enjoyed Draft Day but don’t let that get out). This movie, though it sounds like it’s full of the emotional conventions that Disney does well, sounds very visually appealing, too. Will definitely give it a shot,Tom. Thanks for the head’s up, man!

    • Haha! I too was a fan of what Draft Day did: made the NFL draft not look like a total bore. Not that it is for those involved; but given I’m not *super* into the NFL, I was surprised I had fun with that one. Here, Costner is even better and the sports backdrop is really cool. There aren’t too many running movies (that i know of anyway and that have gotten this kind of mainstream release).

      No problem man, I’m glad to be of service.

    • No doubt my man! Costner was great and so were the secondary and lesser-known stars. Thanks a lot for stopping in again.

  7. I skipped the screening for this, though I still might rent it later. I do like Costner and this role seems to fit him nicely. Ahah, Disney movies do get me teary-eyed too sometimes. Btw, I just reviewed a Disney movie too, which is something more right up my alley 🙂

    • In my mind Ruth this is certainly worth a look-see. 🙂 If you are a fan of Costner then it’s definitely worth it.

      I’ll be on by in a bit, I think I saw a review of Cinderella pop up, if that’s what you refer to? 🙂

  8. This movie surprised me. Yes it’s predictable, but it’s done well. I’d put Remember the Titans, Cool Runnings, The Rookie, and Miracle in the same category. In many ways, MCFARLAND USA was even better.

    • I rate Hoosiers up there as one of the best of its kind. Then comes Cool Runnings, Miracle and a few others not necessarily in that order. But yes, I am very pleased I decided to give in and take a look at this. A surprisingly engaging bit of film that had me cheering.

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