Wednesday, February 25, 2015
MCFARLAND, USA (Niki Caro, 2015)
Disney may not have perfected the inspirational sports movie formula, but the studio makes enough films about overachieving underdogs on the field, court, rink, and track for it to seem like they have distilled the essence of these true stories regardless of if the product turns out to be good, bad, or mediocre. MCFARLAND, USA is no different in following a boys’ cross country program that overcomes the odds to become state champions. The plot is like a race on a long straightaway. There aren’t any surprises, just markers along the trail to indicate how much ground has been covered. Director Niki Caro seasons the stock story with an affectionate portrayal of the community and picturesque views of the landscape.
Jim White (Kevin Costner) accepts a job as an assistant football coach and high school physical education and life science teacher in McFarland, California because he has no other options. His temper has earned his dismissal from other schools, so the best he can find is a demoted position in a small town largely populated by Mexican immigrants who make meager livings picking the fields. Jim, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters experience something akin to culture shock in relocating to the Fruit Bowl of California, but they can’t afford to live in nearby Bakersfield, which is where the white school employees tend to reside and commute from.
After butting heads with the head football coach, Jim proposes starting a boys’ cross country team. He has noticed that some Hispanic students, particularly Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), already can run fast over long distances even though they’ve had no training. To form a team Jim just needs to convince seven boys to join. California is holding its first cross country state championship in 1987, so if Jim can succeed in building a winning program despite having no prior experience coaching runners, he may be able to earn a job in a more desirable location.
There’s irony in Costner’s character and the man he’s based on having the last name White. MCFARLAND, USA and films like it run the risk of angling their stories so it appears that a white savior arrives to make things better for minorities. The screenplay points out this unambiguous tension when the cross country runners frequently refer to their coach by his surname. It’s as though they are reminding him that race is important in informing his perspective and experience, which differ from theirs.
Caro stays attuned to the inherent racial implications of a culturally privileged man achieving enlightenment and self-improvement by guiding the disadvantaged. Costner’s performance radiates humility and a growing personal interest in his athletes, which presents the coach more like a talent spotter than the architect of the team’s success. White warrants credit for seeing the skill and channeling the ability in these kids, and the runners deserve their accolades through dedication and effort. The team is the source of the coach’s reflected glory.
While MCFARLAND, USA is sensitive to how it depicts these events, it struggles to round out any characters other than White. Except for the two runners who are mostly known as the brothers of the slowest team member, each boy is reduced to a single quality. Thomas’ storyline receives more attention to the others, but he still fails to register as more than a slightly more prominent part of the whole. It’s also disconcerting that an accomplished actress like Bello isn’t afforded more to do than being the sturdy family center while Jim devotes himself to coaching.
Such shortcomings aside, MCFARLAND, USA succeeds at detailing the challenges in the community and generating empathy with minimal condescension. White understands that families letting their sons compete can mean lost wages. When he volunteers to work in the fields and throws his daughter a quinceañera, it demonstrates that he knows his credibility and families’ willingness to let their boys run requires connecting with these people as more than just a cultural tourist. MCFARLAND, USA is a predictable, heartwarming story of unlikely sports achievement. As the McFarland runners push to win the title, the film can be quite thrilling, yet the greatest uplift comes in the human bonds forged to get to that moment.