Kevin Costner has truly found his niche. The veteran actor is no stranger to sports flicks, but he’s become a genre regular. 2014’s “Draft Day” was a fun football film, and Costner seemed made for the role. The 2015 “McFarland, USA” tells the true story of high school coach Jim White, and the cross country team program he founded. It’s a touching tale, with a surprising depth and complexity, transcending mere sports.
After an altercation at a high school in Boise, Ohio, Jim White (Kevin Costner) lands a job in California at McFarland High School. It’s a largely Latino community, and the White family struggles to adjust to their new surroundings. Due to past experience, White serves as the assistant football coach but it’s not long until he’s removed from that position after a disagreement with the head coach. While teaching physical education, Jim recognizes that several of his students are naturally athletic. He pitches the idea of starting a cross country club to Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez), and despite a lack of running expertise, he becomes the organizer and coach.
Coach White initially has difficulty recruiting a team, and once he does, they aren’t greeted by instant success. An unassuming bunch, the kids are each distinct: Thomas (Carlos Pratts) is the best runner, Victor (Sergio Avelar) the smooth player, and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez) the portly kid who Coach White dubs his anchor. Tribulations aren’t limited to the course. White has family problems, the students balance cross country practice with working in the fields, and there’s an adjustment within the community.
While “McFarland, USA” centers on cross country, it’s about much more than running. The haggard Coach White lands a position at McFarland, with a primarily Latino community. There’s a neat assimilation between the two distinct social entities, the ironically named White’s and the rest of McFarland. The Diaz brothers, Danny, David (Rafael Martinez), and Damacio (Michael Aguero), invite Jim into their home for dinner, and later he picks crops with them. Moments like this provide “McFarland, USA” a depth and nuance that propel it beyond simply a motivational sports flick. There’s a strong focus on family, and White begins to understand that his team must work in the fields to put food on their tables. Practices are therefore moved later or earlier, depending on the picking schedule.
Unavoidably, a few predictable moments populate the film. However, “McFarland, USA” isn’t about the start and finish, but rather what happens in between. Luckily, it’s executed subtly, with the evolution of the cross country team as well as the White family. The team refer to Coach White as “Blanco” (white) or Jefe (boss) at the onset, later switching to a respectful “Coach.” Similarly, the Whites transform from awkwardly out of their element to participating in tamale bake sales, throwing a quinceanera for their daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor), and assimilating into the community. There’s even a romance between Julie and Thomas.
Although the film is based on a true story, embellishment likely occurred. Yet one of the most powerful moments comes after the big race, when there’s actual footage showing Coach White with his team in present day McFarland. Each kid attended college, and many returned to McFarland assuming teaching positions at the high school or in the community. This, more than anything, illustrates how cross country altered their futures. Inspirational, heartwarming, and overall amusing, “McFarland, USA” is not simply your run of the mill sports flick.