There are so many things that could have gone wrong with Disney's McFarland, USA, a film based on the true story of Coach Jim White, one of California's winningest cross-country coaches who arrived in the small Central California town of McFarland with what amounted to a last chance at coaching.
While McFarland, USA isn't quite at the level of a Field of Dreams, it's definitely a notch or two above a good majority of the inspirational "rah-rah" drivel that seems to pass through movie theaters these days. With strong performances from its entire cast, an authentic story that crosses cultures, and the intelligent yet sensitive direction of Niki Caro (Whale Rider), McFarland, USA is a winner long before Coach White and his boys start racking up the wins.
Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) rolls into the town of McFarland with his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), soon-to-be 15-year-old daughter Julie (Homeland's Morgan Saylor), and daughter Jamie (Elsie Fisher, voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me films). The film opens with his having been booted as football coach from an obviously well-to-do school after an altercation with the quarterback goes a tad too far. These early scenes in McFarland, USA pretty much feature every stereotype in the book, from the family's being appalled at the poverty-stricken community in which they now find themselves to encountering a restaurant in the mostly Latino community that only serves tacos and burritos to Coach White's immediately defensiveness when the family encounters a "menacing" looking group of Latinos driving lowriders.
It is possible to watch these scenes mumbling to yourself "Did they do absolutely no research before moving?," because it would seem likely that someone qualified to be a coach would be smart enough to explore the neighborhood a bit before actually arriving.
But, I digress.
This is the kind of film where that kind of dramatic set-up helps the film accomplish everything it wants to accomplish in its just over two-hour running time.
It also works.
While Coach White arrives in McFarland as an over-qualified assistant football coach, a quick conflict with the head coach leads to the ending of that arrangement. It's while coaching a P.E. class that White realizes that several of his students are incredible runners, a fact more than a little borne out of their lives working the farm fields before and after school. In a school where a good majority of the students are sons and daughters of Mexican field workers, Coach White is going to have to get over whatever biases he may have rather quickly or he's not going to survive this potentially last stop in his coaching career.
Fortunately, he does. While it may sound like we're in store for yet another "white savior" story here, McFarland, USA makes it clear pretty early on that Coach White needs this community as much as they need him.
The great thing about McFarland, USA is that it never minimizes the challenges faced every day in this community, but it also for the most part never stereotypes them. Coach White quickly learns to respect the work ethic and loyalty of his runners, most of whom work the fields before school, run several miles to school, then work the fields after school. Caro manages to show the harsh realities of life in McFarland, at least in a PG-rated way, but also celebrates its Mexican-American culture. This is done particularly effectively in a scene where the entire town gathers to help Julie celebrate her quinceañera.
There are a lot of scenes in McFarland, USA that work, mostly due to the strength of its ensemble cast including a stoic yet sensitive Costner, an under-utilized yet emotionally resonant Mario Bello, and especially amongst the actors who comprise the first of what will become nine state championship cross-country teams out of White's fourteen years as the school's coach.
The film also benefits from a vibrant largely Latino musical score and soundtrack including the song "Juntos (Together") by Latin music superstar Juanes. D.P. Terry Stacey's lensing beautifully weaves together the wonder of the San Joaquin Valley where the film was shot and the stark poverty and challenges faced by the families who live there. In an interview with The Independent Critic, Coach White talked about the streets looking much as they did back then with a notable exception being the city's logo - which used to read "Heartland of Agriculture" and now reads "Trust, Unity, Excellence" in honor of the city's years of success in running.
McFarland, USA may not be the most original film you'll see this year, but its feel good and inspirational story will raise your spirits and leave you feeling much better when you leave the theater than when you entered it. The crowd at the promo screening I attended cheered throughout the film, but especially as the closing credits rolled and we learned the truth of what happened in the lives of one exceptional coach and a group of exceptional young runners.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic