Walt Disney Studios has carved out something of a niche for themselves with the feel good sports movie. “Miracle,” “The Rookie,” “Secretariat,” and last year’s “Million Dollar Arm” have all done well for the mouse. What’s great about each of these movies is that while the ending might be foreseeable, but they’ve never been formulaic. That’s doubly true with “McFarland, USA.” It’s based on a real story and has a fantastic emotional core.
It’s also a return to the sports genre that has served Kevin Costner so well over the years. In “McFarland, USA” Costner plays a down on his luck high school gym teacher and coach who sees in his students real potential for a winning Cross-Country Team. Of course, a small team from Central Valley of California is a big underdog against the well established schools, but through grit and determination, they manage to win.
But that’s just the barest of plots to hang a film upon. It’s the layer and layer of rich story and character development that make McFarland a great movie.
Director Niki Caro (North country, Whale Rider) makes the most of the Central Valley scenery and uses a gentle hand to get the most from the actors as well. Kevin Costner could practically sleepwalk through a sports move these days, but he doesn’t here. His portrayal of coach White has range and realism. He’s flawed, but can and does, learn.
Coach White’s family is slightly underused, but all the performances are strong, including Maria Bello as the wife. She’s perfectly cast because she can make the most of her character’s emotional arc with the limited screen time given.
The real stars of the movie are the seven boys who are groomed to be a Long Distance Running team by Coach White. They play their characters cool and aware of their plight in life. Before running, they had no idea there was a path outside of McFarland for them.
You can’t watch McFarland, USA without confronting the plight of Latino crop workers and their place as ‘other’ in the main stream white culture their work in the crop fields feeds. This is not “Selma” and it’s not a polemic on our national immigration problem. They don’t even mention Ceasar Chavez. But they don’t shirk from showing the hard life of the crop picker either.
In the end it is a feel-good sports movie with all the right notes to leave you feeling great when the underdog finally triumphs.
I’ve been trying to get everyone excited about seeing it, but so far, it’s not attracting much interest — at least from the readers of this blog. If you’re still reading at this point in the review, I hope I’ve changed your mind. Disney’s “McFarland, USA” is one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen in years.