Movie News & Reviews

‘McFarland, USA’ follows a winning formula: 3 stars

A gym teacher (Kevin Costner) turns raw talent into a winning cross-country team (from left, Johnny Ortiz, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Hector Duran and Rafael Martinez.
A gym teacher (Kevin Costner) turns raw talent into a winning cross-country team (from left, Johnny Ortiz, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Hector Duran and Rafael Martinez. Walt Disney Pictures

It’s that movie based on a true story about the teacher/counselor/coach who leads a group of black/Hispanic/at-risk teens to victory in academics/arts/sports.

At first glance, “McFarland, USA” appears to be just another formulaic family flick. Guess again. This culture-clash drama delivers an honest, moving story about the power individuals and communities can gain when defying expectations.

Kevin Costner plays the aptly named Jim White, a real-life football coach who gets fired for his confrontational nature. In 1987, White, his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) move to McFarland, Calif., to take an only-job-he-can-get position at the city’s lone high school.

A road sign proclaims they’re entering the “Fruit Bowl of California.” More like the Dust Bowl. The town is composed primarily of Mexican immigrants, whose work picking crops is passed down to each generation. The definition of a dead-end job.

While teaching P.E., White notices several of his students have talent at running laps. Makes sense. These teens typically wake up at 4:30 a.m. to pick before heading to school. Since they don’t have cars, they run home immediately after class to work the fields again. For hours. In the extreme heat.

Despite the kids’ (and White’s) lack of experience, he proposes they form a cross-country track team. His seven-man squad includes the apprehensive Thomas (a memorable Carlos Pratts) and the nonchalant Diaz brothers (Ramiro Rodriguez, Rafael Martinez and Michael Aguero). Meanwhile, his very blond family slowly adjusts to their inclusive Mexican neighborhood.

As the McFarland Cougars blossom, so does the pull from other schools to recruit White’s services.

“No one stays in McFarland unless they have to,” Thomas reminds the coach.

Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) is somewhat confined by the stock aspirations of a PG-rated Disney project. So it helps that this “true story” is so compelling. By Hollywood standards, they barely embellish it.

From the moment the team is assembled, this tale establishes the us-against-them dynamic. In their first meet, a prepster from the “good high school” taunts these newcomers. “They can’t run without a cop behind them,” he says. “Or a Taco Bell in front.”

Game on.

“McFarland, USA” flirts with melodrama by hinting at domestic abuse and gang violence. Wisely, the picture devotes more time to cultivating slice-of-life details:

There’s the gorgeous, dusty scenery of Kern County and the San Joaquin Valley where the actual events took place. (No British Columbia subbing for California in this shoot.) The race course runs along the town’s razor-wired prison — a reminder of where many of these students might end up without a healthy outlet. The broke White uses a kitchen timer because he doesn’t own a stopwatch.

The production never quite captures the blinding fashion trends of the late ’80s, an era when the ever-subtle Costner was among the top box-office draws. This movie can’t escape from its contemporary vibe. Perhaps that’s by design to give it a more universal appeal.

The only notable drawback is a swollen running time: 128 minutes. Just as racers understand when to pace themselves and when to sprint full-speed, the filmmakers could have made things even easier by shortening the course.

‘MCFARLAND, USA’

Rated PG | Time: 2:08

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