Once or twice a year Disney rolls out its latest sports-centric heartwarmer. Some of them — “Remember the Titans,” “Miracle,” “The Mighty Ducks” — are extremely well-received, others are forgotten nearly as soon as they come out, but all of them are born of the same mold. Kevin Costner takes his turn at the helm as the determined, but flawed coach, who has a lot to learn from an unlikely group of athletes, in “McFarland, USA,” which arrives in theaters on Feb. 20.
Jim White (Costner), a disgraced football coach takes a job at the only high school that will have him, McFarland. McFarland, California, is an impoverished place where no one stays if they can help it, but most of those born there never leave. The high school has a view of the prison and, White is told, if the students don’t end up there, they’ll likely spend their lives toiling in the surrounding fields as pickers. Or, as Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) puts it: “There ain’t nothing American Dream about this place,” even though that’s what his and so many other parents came seeking for their families.
However much he doesn’t want to be there and strives to take actions that will land him a job somewhere else, White soon finds himself enthralled by the students and begins a relentless quest to form a cross-country team. As in any good underdog story, his ragtag team rises to dominance, but not without struggle and cultural clashes.
Disney has a real knack for seeking out these great stories, and a troublesome way of making them all play out the same way. Costner’s White is written like a composite of every Disney sports coach that has done well at the box office: Emilo Estevez’ Gordon Bombay and Denzel Washington’s Herman Boone and Kurt Russell’s Herb Brooks. The difference is, when they did it, it didn’t feel like a pale imitation or another man and team’s story forced into a winning formula box.
Perhaps the McFarland story really did play out just like those other stories — right down to Coach White making a clever jibe in response to another coach’s racist comment after coming out victorious, a la Herman Boone giving another coach a banana in response to a rude, racist comment, or his the star player going past when White tells them to stop and the team has a coming together moment, just like in “Miracle” — and just has the misfortune of coming after those films. But the overwhelming sensation that exists when watching, even as the viewer is happy to see these kids emerge triumphant, is that this story has been sapped of all its originality, denied the right to stand on its own, in favor of it containing those big moments. The (flawed) logic there being that viewers must want to watch the same story over and over again spun out over different sports.
“McFarland, USA” is a perfectly fine family film, and indeed, even an enjoyable enough sports film, if you can get past having seen it so many times before.