A film review by Craig J. Koban February 27, 2015


2015, PG, 128 mins.


Kevin Costner as Jim White  /  Maria Bello as Cheryl  /  Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny Diaz  /  Carlos Pratts as Thomas  /  Johnny Ortiz as Jose  /  Morgan Saylor as Julie  /  Vincent Martella as Brandon  /  Elsie Fisher as Jamie  /  Daniel Moncada as Eddie  /  Diana Maria Riva as Senora Diaz  /  Vanessa Martinez as Maria Marisol  /  Chelsea Rendon as Sonia  /  Ben Bray as Ernesto Valles

Directed by Niki Caro  /  Written by Chris Cleveland, Grant Thompson, and Bettina Gilois

I have to be honest.  I had no desire to see a film about cross country running.  None at all.

While I certainly have respect for the sport’s athletes, I just wasn’t sure if the subject was inherently cinematic.  Yet, along comes McFARLAND, USA a new fact-based sports drama from Disney to completely make me change my tune.  The film works marvelously not only as an inspirational true story of perseverance against physical and emotional obstacles, but it's also a fascinating chronicle of how a former football high school coach turned a ragtag group of Latinos from a small and relatively impoverished community into one of the most celebrated high school cross country teams of all-time.  

The community in question is McFarland, California, whose high school   despite not having a cross country program beforehand – won nine Californian state championships between 1987 and 2013.  Considering the fact that the school barely had any type of serious athletic program before this remarkable feat is kind of astounding in its own right.  The coach in question had his own unlikely rise to prominence.  Jim White left his football coaching job in the mid-1980’s – in a semi-disgraced state – to relocate himself and his entirely family to McFarland, after which time he cultivated a cross country team that garnered 22 league titles in 24 years, including the aforementioned state championships.  He retired in 2003 as the most successful coach in the sport’s American high school history.  McFARLAND, USA tells this story with a remarkable amount of dignity and poise.  It manages to set itself apart from the litany of numerous other past genre films, most of which were characteristically overrun with dramatic manipulation and overt sentimentality.  This film, by comparison, feels more atypically genuine, heartfelt, and true. 



The film opens in 1987 as we are introduced to tough-minded football coach Jim White (an unreservedly well cast Kevin Costner), who is very unceremoniously fired from his high school coaching job after he threw a shoe at one particularly petulant player.  With virtually no other job prospects in sight, Jim finally decides to pack up his home and family and moves his wife (Maria Bello) and daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher respectively) to McFarland, a mostly Latino community in rural California where most of its citizens – and high school students for that matter – eek out a living as workers in fruit and vegetable fields.  Jim begrudgingly takes over as the school’s new P.E. teacher and beyond feeling culturally isolated from the neighborhood he soon discovers that his school’s sports program is virtually a non-entity. 

After a failed – and all-too-brief stint – as McFarland’s football coach, Jim begins to notice something compelling: he sees that many of his students, including the extremely fast and agile Thomas (Carlos Pratts), are unusually strong runners.  This leads to him pondering the potential of McFarland High School cultivating a cross country running team and, in turn, developing some much-need self-respect in the school and community at large.  After getting school permission to do so, Jim then has the thorny task of persuading his most gifted students to join the team, which means convincing them that cross country running is a viable sport for them to partake in.  As Jim struggles to gain his students’ respect while training them in all of the particulars of the sport, he also finds that keeping them on the team itself is a near Herculean task, seeing as their families require them to work when they’re not at school to make ends meet.  This, of course, has a damaging effect on the team as they begin to become dominant in the sport and begin seriously challenging some of the other richer, all-white schools at their own game.  

McFARLAND, USA elevates itself above standard cookie cutter genre clichés and conventions in terms of how much sensitivity the film places not only on the sport of cross country running, but also on the fragile mindsets of the young athletes themselves.  Most of the students, Thomas in particular, live in poverty and are forced to choose daily between working and committing to school.  Very few sports films – high school or not – deal with the intersection of the journey towards athletic excellence and glory with the harsh economic uncertainties and anxieties of its players.  The more Jim becomes involved in the daily grind of his “picker” students the more he begins to see sports as a positive catalyst of change for them.  In many ways, McFARLAND, USA becomes less about its sport, per se, and more about the nature of how some families see the proverbial American Dream outside of their grasps.  True opportunity seems so unlikely for the students of McFarland, which makes Jim’s mission all the more timely and demanding. 

Large kudos needs to go to director Niki Caro, the New Zealand director who previously – and most famously – made WHALE RIDER.  In a genre mostly filled with male filmmakers at the helm, it’s refreshing to see a woman behind the camera lend a more keenly sensitive eye to both the underlining story and characters.  The students themselves don’t fall victim to sports film formulas, as most of them are reasonably fleshed out and are given weight.  The dramatic anchor of the film is arguably Thomas, who faces an alcoholic father at home and a genuine lack of guidance in his life.  To be fair, McFARLAND could have easily fallen into the trap of becoming a "White Savior" sports film with Jim swooping in to save the souls of his Mexican immigrant students.  Thankfully, the film is as much about Jim combating his own prejudices with the town’s citizens as it is about him trying to rally its high school students together.  In a way, both the coach and his players are on journeys of self-discovery in the film. 

Costner has done so many sports films that it’s often easy to overlook how damn good he is in them; he always seems to be a reliably stalwart and understated anchor leading the charge.  His low key and nuanced performance as Jim allows for his strong young supporting cast to share the spotlight with him.  Costner efficiently plays his character with the right balance of headstrong determination and internalized uncertainty and doubt that helps ground the film immensely.  McFARLAND, USA does, of course, build to the obligatory “big climatic match” that pits McFarland versus potentially unstoppable opponents in the 1987 Californian state championship.  Even if the outcome here is a foregone historical conclusion, the film still imbues the journey towards this point in the story with ample heart and soul.  Like the criminally underrated MIRACLE (another Disney sports picture), McFARLAND, USA feels both old fashioned, yet revitalizingly novel in dealing with a story of redemption for both mentor and students alike.  

Yeah…yeah…the film certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel for its genre (that, and it’s a wee bit safe with the material), but it does become undeniably charming and unexpectedly moving along the way.  Heart-warming, handsomely mounted, and endearingly performed, McFARLAND, USA emerges as one of the better family films of recent memory and a rare sports biopic that thoroughly invests in the fragile mindsets of its characters.  The inspirational sports genre seems to have run out of gas as of late, but when done well and with the right tact...pleasant surprises like this emerge.  

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