On the surface, Disney’s new film, McFarland USA may seem like yet another formulaic feel good story of the underprivileged and underdog minority high school kids who, despite the socioeconomic and cultural barriers facing them, manage to overcome the odds, rally and emerge triumphant by the time the closing credits roll.
Indeed, the fact that the film features Kevin Costner in the lead role, almost begs comparison and, among some, potential derisive criticism as yet another “white savior story” similar to that leveled at Sandra Bullock’s popular 2009 film, The Blind Side.
Thankfully, New Zealand-born director Niki Caro delivers a film that may, to it’s credit, borrow certain elements of the former description; but also, bears nothing at all in resemblance to the latter. Instead, McFarland USA is a wonderfully human story that focuses on a celebration of human endurance, pride, mutual understanding and personal redemption.
More importantly, it is a film that superbly celebrates Mexican-American culture, family, and the desire and daily struggle for a better life in America among the Latino poor in a way that’s rarely explored by a major Hollywood studio.
Set in 1987, McFarland USA is the true life story of high school football coach Jim White. After an ill-advised display of temper and getting rough with one of his wise cracking student players, White is fired from his coaching job in Boise, Idaho. Unlike, the perception of Sandra Bullock’s “The Blind Side” character, Costner’s Jim White is certainly no saint nor savior; but instead, he’s a fairly flawed individual with a history of getting fired from job to job due to his impatient, often intemperate personality and expectations.
White’s only option is to accept a low level teaching and Phys Ed job in the dusty and poor central California town of McFarland. Accompanied by his wife Cheryl ( Maria Bello ) and their two daughters, teenage Julie ( Morgan Saylor ) and preteen Jamie ( Elsie Fisher ), White is forced to relocate his family to this small community where the residents are poor, predominantly Mexican-American and the majority of work is found in the nearby agricultural fields picking fresh produce for the rest of America.
Upon arriving in McFarland, White and his family realize to their dismay they are clearly a family of fish out of familiar waters. Surrounded by signs in Spanish, perplexed and unable to even order from the myriad choices of tacos from the local town restaurant, White immediately begins to wonder how he and his family will fit into this new and ( to them ) strange environment. Conversely, the residents wonder who and why this white guy and his family have decided to come to their town; when some clearly believe he has better options than they do, than to relocate to dismal McFarland.
Director Caro peppers this initial culture clash with both a mix of humor and human realism. Some of the residents react to the new gringo in town with bemusement and skepticism; while others reach out with generous helpings of hospitality and welcome. To the credit of the screenplay, Costner’s White isn’t immediately smitten with his new surroundings for his family; not out of any degree of buried racism as much as being in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.
It doesn’t help matters when his brown Mexican-American gym students take great glee in noting the fact that their new instructor’s last name is White; and thusly give him the nickname of “Blanco”. Only adding to the misunderstandings and tensions, is during their first night in town, White mistakenly assumes a group of young people driving souped-up, low-rider cars are a group to be nervously avoided as something potentially malevolent and dangerous to the safety of his family.
However gradually, as White accepts his teaching role for the time being, he begins to take note of how naturally fast and athletic many of his students are; the result of running daily in the early morning hours to pick crops in the blistering heat, to then running to morning class… and after school, running back again to the fields to help their families pick more produce to earn money to put food on their meager tables. Upon seeing several of these swift-footed students, White convinces the school to allow him to form McFarland High School’s first cross-country running team.
Tapping into one of the tropes of this type of underdog film; albeit often sadly a real life truism, the school, the students and even some of their families are skeptical of such an endeavor. For the students, they never have thought of a life beyond McFarland’s nearby picking fields nor aiming higher for themselves. For their families, the perceived frivolousness of their sons being on the team interferes with the reality that every hour wasted practicing on the track, is one hour taken away from picking in the fields. The reality that the families, and we the audience face, is that these workers aren’t paid by the literal time they put in picking the fields; but how much produce they pick.
White finds he must not only convince his runners of their potential greatness; but also, their fathers as well. His biggest challenge is not only convincing his hot-tempered, but naturally gifted best runner, Thomas ( Carlos Pratts ) of his potential; but also convincing his skeptical father. The task proves especially daunting after the team abysmally loses their first running match against a group of better funded, more experienced and all white teams from more affluent schools and towns.
It’s here where the film avoids being another underdog sports cliche and results in something much deeper. As White visits his students’ families and yes, even tries his completely inept hands at working the fields with them, to help them complete their fair share of the family daily earnings; we see something that makes McFarland USA, the film, something unique.
White begins to bond with his boys while almost literally running them ragged. However, as he teaches them about striving for something higher; their families teach White something just as valuable. He, and by extension we the audience, learn about the importance and value this close-knit Mexican-American community puts on hard work, spending time with each other around the dinner table and family.
Indeed, it’s a lesson White learns the hard way when, in his focus on making the team better, he forgets older daughter Julie’s 15th birthday and breaks her heart. What occurs next is one of the film’s delightful highlights as White’s neighbors decide to gather together to initiate his family, and perhaps many of the film’s non-Hispanic audience, to the all important highlight of a young Latina girl’s growing up, her Quinceanera – the birthday that marks the transition from childhood to young womanhood… and throw a special one for young Julie to her utter delight and surprise.
Additionally, White learns that his team already possesses qualities of strength and dedication from their life, family, work and culture that, in his mind, makes them winners even before the predictable climatic final race against their former running adversaries.
It’s those qualities that director Caro succeeds in bringing to the screen that makes McFarland USA much more than another triumphant sports underdog trope. It’s a film that more richly than ever before, at least in recent memory, explores what it’s like, both good and lamentable, about the Mexican-American experience in the remote picking fields of California.
Director Caro falls victim to adding a few cliches in the film such as the unnecessary inclusion of an incident with gang-banger overtones to derail the revelry of one of the film’s more celebratory moments… or, the derisive glee and distain some of the all-white team runners hold for the poor Hispanic kids… or the one lone, chubby McFarland runner who proves to be an underrated surprise to help save the day.
Still, as a whole, McFarland USA is a delightfully feel good revelation. Costner, now at age 60, delivers a solid performance as a man, at first angry and disillusioned, who finds a form of redemption and invigoration from what would have seemed to him, the most unlikely of places. His rapport with his team is totally believable as an embittered coach initially phoning in his job, to a man who forms a genuinely affectionate bond with his team, their families and his own family’s newfound community.
Supporting actress Diana Maria Riva almost steals each scene she’s in as team leader, Thomas’ mother who steps up to organize, fund, feed and clothe the team and generates town-wide pride in the runners’ accomplishments. Carlos Pratts as Thomas brings a strong intensity to his role; a young man torn between wanting something grander for himself, yet also struggling between family obligation, cultural tradition and a sense that the odds in life are stacked against him.
McFarland USA is less a sports film and more a film about community, tradition and family. It’s a film about being proud and respecting where you’ve come from, no matter what you manage to achieve in life; however grand or humble. It’s a powerful and uplifting message about modern Hispanic life and culture that needs to be told more often by major Hollywood studios.
Just like the runners from McFarlane who ultimately won their real life race… this film begins as an all important first stride in the right direction.
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Tim Estiloz is an Emmy winning entertainment journalist and member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association.
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