Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a former high school football coach whose history of being stubborn and a bit hot-tempered with the schools has led him job-hopping all the way down to the predominantly Latino community of McFarland, California. Although his start at McFarland High School is a bit rocky, things begin to look up for him when he notices the exceptional running ability of a few of the students. With the school’s football team being a joke, White forms a school cross-country team that he hopes can compete in the state championship.
McFarland, USA wasn’t exactly on my highly anticipated list, but I knew at some point Disney would eventually tackle a sport like cross-country. After all, they’re hooked on these inspirational, heartstring-tugging sports movies like crack, and they’re running out of sports stories to move viewers to tears with.
Give it time and eventually Mickey and Co. will tackle shuffleboard, or how a group of Latvian immigrants overcame all odds to win a game of hopscotch at the local park.
I’m not averse to these heartwarming inspirational movies Disney loves to do. They’ve been all the rage out of the Magic Kingdom ever since Joseph Gordon-Levitt whined to God about his dad being an absentee dickhead. The problem is that, most of the time, they shove more than a spoonful of sugar down our throats. I just recently got the taste of last year’s well-intentioned but way too sentimental for its own good Million Dollar Arm out of my mouth. Every now and then, though, Disney gets the formula to work, like they did with Remember the Titans, The Rookie and Miracle. They manage to do so again with McFarland, USA.
To those that didn’t know the true story of McFarland High School beforehand, and I confess I was one, it really is a remarkable story. Coached by Jim White from 1987-2003, the school cross-country team achieved 22 league titles, 15 sectional championships, 9 state championships and an unprecedented 24 consecutive trips to the state championship (their streak recently ended during the production of this film).
While no one can deny that it takes a great deal of skill and stamina to participate in cross-country, the sport doesn’t have the same onscreen thrill that the more popular sports – baseball, football, basketball and hockey – are able to easily deliver. That’s primarily ’cause as a team sport, the point tallying from the judges at the end of the race means you won’t get the equivalent of a homer in the bottom of the 9th, a last minute touchdown drive or a game winning shot. So it’s a testament of director Niki Caro’s (Whale Rider, North Country) skill as a filmmaker and the talented young cast that we find ourselves on the edge of our seats rooting for these kids as they’re heading down the final stretch.
Of course, the predictability factor is inevitable. You know the kids are gonna end up champions. It’s based on a true story, and it’ll be a cold day in hell when Disney gives us a film about the 0-16 Detroit Lions or the ’98-99 Chicago Bulls. So don’t expect Caro to shake things up with the formula ’cause you’re gonna get the misfit kid who’s the most talented one on the team, but doesn’t wanna race, the least talented runner who turns into the little engine that could, the bigger school with better pay offer to the coach and the Cool Runnings dad who disapproves of his son being involved in cross-country, then at the championship race is practically waving a McFarland High foam finger and kick-starting the wave with the crowd.
Yet, as predictable as this film is, it works ’cause Caro and her team of screenwriters (Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois & Grant Thompson) flesh out characters that are worth pulling for to succeed. A few of the plot elements from the “How to Make a Disney Sports Movie” handbook could’ve been handled better such as the snobby, white opposing track team who sneer at the idea of Mexicans being involved in cross-country, and what’s a film like this without the obligatory third-act tragedy? But, overall, Caro and the writers give us characters that we care for, while also giving those who aren’t familiar with the sport a rundown of how the rules work that’s explained well without wearing the viewer out on detail overload.
For someone that loves his sports movies, Kevin Costner seems like the obvious choice to play the lead here. It’s Costner playing in his comfort zone, but he’s good at these roles, and it goes without saying that, save the mediocre Draft Day, most of his best films have been about sports (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup). Costner holds everything together here, playing Jim White as tough and no-nonsense yet also eminently likeable, and thankfully avoids turning White into some sorta white savior saint here to rescue the Latino community.
We don’t need another Dances with Wolves, Kevin.
Then we have the kids Costner coaches. One of the big problems with Million Dollar Arm was that it was more focused on Jon Hamm’s character and not the three Indian kids (and whenever it did focus on them it was mainly to see what dopey fish out of water hijinks they got into next), but Caro wisely devotes just as much time to the teammates and their families as she does to White and his. All seven newcomers turn in strong work, and hold their own against Costner just fine. The primary standout out of them all is Carlos Pratts who’s absolutely fantastic as Thomas Valles, the gifted but troubled runner who initially sees running as a waste of time that will never lift him and his friends out of the struggles they and their families face each day. Valles has mostly starred in shorts and a small supporting role in last year’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones prior to this film, but this should hopefully open up more opportunities for him.
McFarland, USA isn’t aiming to reinvent the genre, but amidst all the predictable beats, director Niki Caro creates an emotionally uplifting film thanks to the heart and depth she and her terrific cast, led by a solid performance from Kevin Costner, inject into these characters. The races are thrilling, but it’s the relationship that develops between the players and their coach that will resonate the most with the viewers. It may not be Rocky, but it’s definitely the best Disney-fied inspirational sports film since 2004’s Miracle.
I give McFarland, USA a B+ (★★★).