McFarland, USA is Disney’s latest attempt at milking the “based on a true story” sports movie. The studio that has given us Remember the Titans, Miracle, and most recently Million Dollar Arm, follows a tried-and-true blueprint of sports movies where odds are overcome and success is found. It’s an underdog high school sports movie that, while cliched at times, succeeds because characters are made the priority.
Niki Caro, the New Zealander that made a splash with 2002’s Whale Rider and followed that three years later with North Country, makes a return to Hollywood with a film that seems unlike her. Having tackled subjects where the subtext was about female empowerment and cultural subjugation of women, both films also placed an emphasis on community. Feminine nuances may be gone in McFarland but the importance of community remains.
The Disney drama covers the sport of cross country track with Kevin Costner starring as coach Jim White. He arrives in McFarland, California at the start of the 1987 school year with his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher). His arrival is not by choice; Jim White has been fired from three other schools for insubordination and losing his cool. McFarland High is the only place willing to offer him employment, as the school is lacking coaches. It doesn’t take long for Jim to get into a kerfuffle with the head football coach and loses his position as assistant. But he is kept on the staff as a P.E. teacher. Without a planned fitness curriculum he has his students run laps. Before long he sees something in a few of the students, particularly Thomas (Carlos Pratts). He is by far the quickest averaging a mile in a little more than five minutes. Much like coach White and his arrival to McFarland, though, Thomas runs not by choice but out of necessity.
McFarland is a small community in rural California that is home to a largely Latino population. Most make their living as day laborers in fruit and vegetable fields, including Thomas who wakes up at 4:30 A.M. every morning to pick crops before running to school when daylight breaks. Once school is over it’s back to running and picking the fields before the sun sets.
As a refreshing change, McFarland, USA isn’t about Jim White being the “Great White Hope” in inspiring the community to rise above being impoverished. Instead, the reverse is true. Jim first views McFarland as a quick diversion on the way to coaching at a bigger school. As he goes about his business in shaping seven teens into a cross country team, his family grows to love the rural city and the generosity bestowed upon them. It affords a nice balance and has the sports drama aspire to be more about community than overcoming the odds.
A big problem with sports movies, especially team sports, is allowing the sport to dominate the story. Niki Caro’s direction isn’t to overplay the race sequences; she extends beyond coach White and the cross country team to give us interludes of mothers and daughters, broken homes, and the hardships borne from having to choose picking instead of running.
McFarland, USA is about the assimilation of cultures but with Jim and his family acclimating themselves to the town. To fully understand what his students go through Jim spends a weekend morning picking cabbage in the fields. It is a calculated scene and recalls a famous line from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch acknowledges, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Having grasped the daily trials of these seven athletes, Jim is more sensitive to their realities.
The film has a few narrative hiccups that complicate pacing. One moment on a bridge with Thomas contemplating suicide should have been judiciously excised from the final cut as it feels artificial to the story. Caro tries to correct any story flaws by distracting viewers with training for an upcoming meet, beautifully lensed by Adam Arkapaw (who did the inaugural season of HBO’s True Detective).
Losing the story’s focus at times McFarland, USA is nevertheless a satisfactory crowdpleaser. Caro adeptly balances the sporting element with family to make the off-field action just as important. The cross country competitions, while interesting, are not as impressive of Jim White’s transformation as a man who takes for granted the riches community life bestows. The film may not reach the heights of Remember the Titans or Miracle but this is one of the better Disney sports movies of late and good family entertainment.
Director: Niki Caro
Writer: Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson
Starring: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts
Running Time: 128 minutes
Rating: R (for thematic material, some violence and language)