No one brings inspirational real life stories to film like Disney, especially when those stories center around sports. Be it horses, baseball, football or any other sport, you know you will be moved, you will be inspired, you will be entertained, but more importantly, you will learn something about a person or lives well lived and hard fought, about overcoming odds and finding that “winning spirit.” And then there’s Kevin Costner. With the recent “3 Days to Kill”, “Draft Day”, “Black or White” and now “McFarland, USA”, Costner is at the top of his game. And no one delivers inspirational sports speeches like Costner. Be he Crash Davis, Billy Chappell or McFarland’s Jim White, Costner is not only the Jimmy Stewart of the genre, but the embodiment of the men who inspire these stories. And then you put Disney and Costner together with the story of Jim White and McFarland High School’s 1987 cross country team and you get an unstoppable film rooted deep in the ideals of family, faith and an immigrant farmworker community that goes the distance. You get “McFarland, USA.”
McFarland, California is located in California’s Central Valley; the heart of the State’s farming community. Primary population is comprised of hardworking migrant farmworkers. The economy is not robust, but the strength of character and community are. Children work in the fields with their parents at sun up and then run to school before heading back to the fields after classes. Generations of a family live together. On the surface, this is their destiny, their fate. Their will be no college, no chance for “success” as most perceive it.
Enter football coach Jim White. The time is 1987. Having been bounced around from school to school across the country, White never manages to stay in one place too long thanks to “misunderstandings” with his players, his training methods and school administrators. With all possibilities for employment exhausted but for one, White packs up his wife and two daughters and heads to McFarland High School in California. Hired to teach science, PE and serve as assistant football coach, White is a fish out of water in McFarland. Viewed as a “gringo” by the students and the community, the White family are outsiders and completely unfamiliar with the Hispanic customs, communities or the language. Attempts by some community members to welcome them to the community are misconstrued and rebuffed. The Whites are, quite honestly, afraid. And the students have no respect at all for Jim White. But with no other options available to them, Jim White has to step up his game and go with the flow; or does he.
Ousted as the assistant football coach over “debates” with the head coach, White does a little digging and discovers funding is available for a cross-country team at the school. Although tricky thanks to his having no experience in cross-country or track and field or even running, persuading the school principal isn’t that difficult. Finding seven athletes for the team is something else, particularly when considering the grueling schedules the boys keep with work in the fields, school and chores at home. But it’s that very stamina and dedication that White uses to convince the boys they have what it takes to be competitive athletes.
Focusing on the mutual learning curve of the hardships and benefits of both cultures and the preconceived misconceptions of people, through sport we see the emotional growth of Jim White and his family as they become part of the community, and realize what a good life they have always had and what a better life they now have. And we see young boys turn into young men with futures ahead that will take the outside the bounds of McFarland (and thanks to the credit epilogue, we see where cross-country and Jim White’s guidance took them in the world, and for many, back to the community in mentoring roles).
We meet the heart of the McFarland team – the Diaz brothers; David, Damacio and Danny. And then the real athletes of the team, Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Jose Cardenas and Johnny Sameniego. When it comes to the Diaz boys, their home life is one of love but with no-nonsense parenting. Thomas’ home life is one of physical abuse at the hands of a father who cannot come to terms with life in the United States and cultural differences. Running is Thomas’ escape. Johnny is a bit of a larcenist who is saved from expulsion by Jim White and thus, “owes” White and joins the team. Jose and Victor are more or less followers, but have great faith in White.
Capturing the McFarland journey over the course of that first cross-country season up through the state championship (which McFarland won), “McFarland, USA” is a testament to the ties that bind and the hopes and dreams that are America.
For Kevin Costner, playing Jim White seemed fated. “I had read about [McFarland and Jim White] in Sports Illustrated. And I remember being very taken with it. I had lived in the Central Valley in Visalia. I actually played McFarland in high school baseball. . .I was taken with the story, and then of course closed the page and moved on with my life. And then this movie came up. . . [T]here’s these men and women all over America who are affecting our young people. And relationships that coaches establish with young people is something that carries through their life if it’s done right. There’s not a lot of Jim Whites, but there are Jim Whites, and he represents the best, really, of the best.” Calling White a “a very graceful, very quiet man, who somehow let them know what was possible”, Costner “was proud to play the essence of Jim White”. As mentioned, no one does inspiration like Kevin Costner and here is no different. Costner allows us to see the flaws of the man, flaws of the human spirit and human condition and takes us on that emotional journey of redemption, acceptance and growth, earning the respect of the audience for not only his performance, but for the man that is Jim White.
But as strong a performance as Costner gives, and as emotionally compelling and resonant, the real story of McFarland and the performances that stand the tallest come from “the team”. These actors/non-actors/athletes turned actors are just incredible. These are not performances. They are so strong, so real, you feel the truth of the story and each young man coursing through their respective individual and collective DNA.
Particularly effective and real standouts are Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles and the oh-so-adorable Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny. Pratts, an accomplished actor had no athletic experience, trained from the ground up to be the superstar runner of the McFarland team. Under the watchful eyes of Disney go-to sports training guru, Mark Ellis, Valles and the other boys would start their days in “Santa Clarita and I would run like five or six miles with these guys, and I cried more than I cried when I saw Bambi. But you know, Sergio being a runner from McFarland really helped me out, and – as well as Hector and Johnny and everyone. . .Then we would go to the studio and rehearse the film. But wanting to push himself farther, Valles would then drive to Redondo Beach and “go through a lot of pain from the great people at Brick Fitness – thank you, Brian Gwen – and he would just help with the strength and the nutrition and all that.”
Truer words were never written, or spoken, than those echoed by Costner as White saying that Danny is the anchor of the team. The character of Danny is the anchor of the film – in this one character we have the embodiment of hopes, dreams, courage, strength and miles and miles of heart. He is the metaphor of the community, of the kids. Ramiro Rodriguez who plays Danny was neither a runner or an actor when he began the process for “McFarland, USA”, but rather a champion soccer player. And as luck would have it, his counselor at school had been none other than his real-life counterpart, Danny Diaz.
The other two members of the Diaz family are Damacio, played by Michael Aguero and David, played by Rafael Martinez. Aguero is an actual runner, but again Martinez had no athletic or acting experience and, in fact, cut school, to audition for the film.
According to Michael Aguero, “[I]t was all intimidating up until we met these guys [the Diaz brothers]. . .They made their personalities like stand out, and it was easy to read them. [They] just pretty much gave us something to go off of, rather than just sitting and not giving us anything.” Echoing Aguero, Rafael Martinez also found it “very intimidating” to play real life individuals. “A lot of trepidation portraying a real person. Because it’s very scary. You never want to, you know, offend anybody, or just you always want to remain true. . . But like I said, like Michael was saying, as soon as I met – or we met our counterparts – it was just easy from there.”
As Victor, Sergio Avelar brought a real truth to his performance. An actual runner with the McFarland and with the real Thomas Valles as his track coach, Avelar found the whole experience “ just so surreal, especially filming out there” especially when the community would come to watch the filming.
A casting shortcoming is Maria Bello. There is an uncomfortableness to her performance and her specific casting in this character. No matter how good or how strong an actress she is, she cannot overcome her own strength as a woman or the persona that is “Maria Bello”. It never rings true with her as Cheryl White saying, “Whatever you want, Jim. Whatever decision you want to make, Jim. I’m with you.” The delivery of the lines was more exasperation and acquiescence than wifely support.
Directed by New Zealander Niki Caro, hers is not the first name one would think of to direct “McFarland, USA” but on seeing the final product, and listening to her passion, there is no question she was the right director for the job. Working with Chris Cleveland on the script, Caro was “inspired, simple as that. [A]nd not only and just by Jim White and the original team and the scale of their achievement, and the legacy that they left and the legacy that goes on. But I was really inspired by the people, by how hard they work, by the commitment to their families, their faith, their community. And it was great for me to be able to light that up. . .You drive to McFarland [and then] you’ll see a bunch of people you see on screen. It’ll look like it does on screen. That’s deeply satisfying to me to go in and tell a story that is not only meaningful, but is true and real, and tell it with the real people. And then if that weren’t enough, to go in with the likes of these people.” To achieve the visual and emotional bandwidth of this story of “family, faith, farming”, for Caro, “That comes from going there and observing. Eyes, ears, heart open. Mouth shut. I can only speak for myself as a filmmaker, but it would be arrogant and stupid to assume that I know better than those guys what their life is like. It makes it very easy for me as a filmmaker to go and observe what life is like. THEN I bring my skill in to express that in a way that hopefully an audience can appreciate it in the same way that I do.”
Key to the truth of this storytelling lies beyond the performance, beyond the McFarland legacy and embraces the technical aspects and attention to detail of the film; particularly Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography. A testament to Caro and Arkapaw is the film’s beauteous imagery. A culturally immersive film, the visuals are evocative and telling. While we see the dusty patina and less than glimmering look of the town, that is contrasted with its beauty; e.g., a setting sun as backlight, and those little wisps of sunbeam floating on air or the striking beauty of a lone runner high atop a hill capturing the grace of a body in motion, or the vibrancy of the green fields and cohesiveness and camaraderie of the people working almost as one. According to Caro, “We also discussed photographing McFarland in a way that it was a very hostile place to being with and the deeper Jim White and his family got immersed into that environment, the more beautiful that became.” And off course, celebratory is that “McFarland, USA” was shot on film, adding just another layer of period perfect grain. Camerawork amazes in scope and intimacy at the climactic final race covering 400 runners throughout the Los Angeles area.
Production design excels with many of the speciality scenes such as a Quinceanera which Costner’s White gives to his daughter (after missing her birthday dinner). But perhaps one of the proudest moments for Caro, and a very telling aspect of the culture is a low rider procession. Not part of the original McFarland story, Caro took a bit of literary license with this addition to the film. “The low riding elements of the movie did not exist before I came in. Low riding is kind of a big part of my life because my husband’s very big into that world and we’ve always had those cars. I wouldn’t have brought that to this movie if it hadn’t been very authentic to that place. The Central Valley? Bakersfield? Very big low riding. Particularly in the 80’s.” Contacting the car club Canales Unidos in the area, sourcing the cars to be period specific and accurate was key. “The cars are so authentic and so specific. We could have used sexier cars but the sexier cars weren’t there then. So those cars actually came from a car club in North Hollywood – The Glass House. . .It’s just a nice, glamorous colorful element in the movie, but it also, for me, was important to make the point that low riding in Hollywood movies is usually shorthand for gangster. My experience is that car clubs – all those guys are all about family, they’re all about community. . .So I wanted to bring that. The little speech [in the film] – ‘We’re a car club. We love these cars. They’re our babies.’ – That’s what I understand about low riding culture.” And of course, hand in hand with the beauty and gloss and sleekness of those cars is the metaphoric touchstone to the beauty of a cross country runner in motion.
David Coulson’s editing is smooth and emotionally paced, interweaving and creating visual metaphor between the physicality of the athletes and their bodies and challenges with the physical challenges of the landscape that is life in McFarland. One jaw-dropping example are scenes of the boys running up and down almond mounds, something unique to the region.
By the end of “McFarland, USA”, what we see and feel is what every town in America should see and feel – the courage to stand up, stand tall and go the distance. “McFarland, USA” does just that. As Kevin Costner opined, with “‘McFarland, USA’ and Jim White, we see what’s possible. And Jim White, in just kind of putting the goal out in front of them, look what happened. Champions. [They] exceeded beyond their expectations, so it’s a great lesson to us, McFarland, that if we give our children, our young men, our young women goals, we let them see what’s possible, they can exceed beyond their own wildest expectations. It’s just a very good lesson, this movie.”
Directed by Niki Caro
Written by Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Grant Thompson
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez, Michael Aguero
“McFarland, USA” is running across America’s theatres now.