Greetings again from the darkness. “A Disney movie” was once synonymous with good-hearted family fare. Even though the lure of big box office has caused the studio to expand their film boundaries a bit, no one does it better when the material is a heart-warming, inspiring story … especially if based on a true story. This latest has less in common with The Mighty Ducks, and more with Miracle, The Rookie, and Dreamer.
Based on a true story that began in 1987, Kevin Costner plays high school coach Jim White, who after a couple of unfortunate incidents, finds himself with a not so desirable teaching/coaching gig in the San Joaquin Valley in central California – specifically the poverty stricken farming community of McFarland. To say that life is hard in McFarland is a bit of an understatement. The families are mostly Hispanic and heavily dependent on crop picking. Once the kids are age 10, they are put to work in the fields before and after school.
Toting their prejudices, Coach White and his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters arrive as outsiders, but quickly discover their neighbors are very proud people who value family and community. Coach also discovers that the area boys have developed a natural ability to run distances in the heat, so he forms a school cross country team, and the rest is literally history. The runners dominate the California state meet by winning 9 of the next 14 years, and many of the boys go off to college – something previously not even a remote dream for most.
Since this is Disney, most of the jagged edges are rounded off. Crime, discrimination, politics, racism, and poverty are present, but do not receive much attention. Director Niko Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) does nice work in keeping the story grounded and focused on the individuals. We get a feel for the skepticism and family obstacles faced by this first group of runners. More importantly, we witness the pride and involvement as the boys begin to have some success, and the sense of belonging that sneaks up on White and his family.
Costner does get a shot at a motivational speech, but it’s small in scope and wonderfully centered on what the boys have accomplished, rather than some unrelatable shot at changing the world. Seeing him on a “Barbie” bike brings a laugh, as does some of the high school boy chatter directed at their duck-out-of-water coach. We don’t really get to know the individual boys too much (some are actors, some are actual McFarland students), but the end credit video recap of where they are now (27 years later) really hits home as to the importance of guidance and mentorship for youngsters.
The film is extremely pleasant and the story’s roots in the real world lend credence to the inspirational message and underdog-overcoming-obstacles story. It’s also a reminder that opportunity to make a difference is all around us. Just look what Jim White and runners have accomplished!
**NOTE – for Bull Durham fans, Visalia is just up the road from McFarland (bringing Costner full circle).