“McFarland USA” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux


Once in a while a film comes along that makes you feel fully satisfied with the events that have just transpired on-screen. Disney’s “McFarland USA” is certainly one of those films. It is a tremendously inspiring fairy tale concerning the American dream that just happens to be true. Yet, the protagonists in this story aren’t your average, little-team-that-could but rather a group of hard-working young Mexican Americans that can run extremely fast.

Kevin Costner stars as Jim White, former football coach who was fired from his previous school after tossing a pair of cleats in the direction of an unruly student. (Editor’s note: I suppose J.K. Simmons can get away with flinging cymbals at the Shaffer Music Conservatory as evidenced in “Whiplash,” but for Costner in a Disney film, not so much!) Soon, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and their two daughters, Julie and Jamie, find themselves in the California town of McFarland where 98 percent of the locals are Latinos and the high school reflects that. The overqualified White has been hired by the school to teach life sciences and to assist with the football program.

The initial experiences of White’s family in their newfound abode aren’t the most welcoming. There’s a gigantic mural of the Virgin Mary plastered right in the middle of their living room. There are dirty looks from their elderly neighbor through the window, for no apparent reason. They even have to ignore cat calls directed at the females as they are leaving a Mexican restaurant during their first night in town. Luckily the leader of the gang-bangers, Javi, (played by Rigo Sanchez, Mexico’s answer to Luke Evans) puts an end to such nonsense and allows the nice clean family to leave in peace.

After a disagreement of sorts with the coach he was hired under, a downtrodden White is relegated to teaching physical education where one of the most obvious things to do is have the kids run laps. While noticing how fast some of the boys circle the track, Coach White gets the idea to organize a team from these seven Latinos to compete in cross-country racing with the 1987 open-invitational looming forward. Some of the boys are hesitant at first, especially Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) who Jim notices running through the fields every afternoon on his way from school. Thomas is an unhappy teen who is forced to defend his pregnant sister from insults and the ire of an abusive father. Then there are the three Diaz brothers who have to work in the fields during their free time to help support their families. After Coach White decides to toil with them in their miniscule wage harvest and makes a vested interest in Thomas’ home life, he earns the respect of the families and is allowed to keep his team intact.

The boys are poor, so none of them possess decent running shoes. Naturally, White purchases shoes and uniforms for his runners and enters them into their first race. While an honorable effort for the team from McFarland High, it was more than the group could handle due to the unfamiliar terrain of hills. Taking credit for the loss, Jim starts training the boys on makeshift almond hills and from then on will there be anything standing between this team from the little town of McFarland and the California state championship?

Even though I had mentioned an initial clash of cultures between the White family and the residents of McFarland, the town ultimately welcomes them with open arms. That elderly next door neighbor who peeps through windows apparently just wanted to give Coach White a chicken as a gift. There’s a key scene earlier in the picture where in the midst of the trials and tribulations of the McFarland high school track team, Coach White forgets to buy his daughter Jamie (Morgan Saylor) a birthday cake. He is later taught the significance of a daughter’s fifteenth birthday, or “Quinceañera” as the locals would say. No worries, as Jim with the help of his Latino friends throw Jamie the biggest, belated Quinceañera to hit McFarland since the one where Thomas’ pregnant sister was still innocent! Remember that group of gang-bangers led by Javi? Well, they’re really just a “car club” who winds up parading Jamie through the streets during her birthday celebration.

Most importantly, the boys who previously referred to Jim as either White or Blanco grow to love and respect him and bestow upon him the earned title of Coach. It is because of Jim White’s commitment to not only showcasing the athletic prowess of these youngsters on the track, but setting them on the right road to succeed in the greatest game of all, life. In return for his efforts, the families of the boys teach him the importance of family, friends, and fiesta. It is later in the film when Jim White must decide whether or not to accept a job offer from rival school Palo Alto for what appears to be a much larger sum of money and a better neighborhood per se. Should he leave the kids that he has inspired to greatness?

One of the greatest things about this film is the dynamically human portrait of Jim White, as played by screen legend Kevin Costner. We feel the anguish of a man who must provide for his family while teetering at the end of his proverbial rope. We are also overcome with admiration at the philosophy of the same man who believes that winning life’s races are more important than that which takes place on the ground. I really can’t remember the last time an authoritative figure on-screen made such a difference in the lives of a select group of young people, but Jim White should be commended for creating champions in every sense of the word.

“McFarland USA” was directed by one of New Zealands’s most talented auteurs, Niki Caro. Her credits include the critically-acclaimed 2002 film “Whale Rider” and 2005’s “North Country” starring Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand. While “McFarland” is her first collaboration with Walt Disney, judging from the real-life, yet still family-friendly direction that the company heads into with this release, I expect many more opportunities for her.

*** (three out of four stars)

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