Film Review – McFarland, USA
McFarland, USA (2015) is a sports movie that contains every cliché the genre has to offer. You want an underdog? You got it. How about a group of diverse people overcoming their differences for a common cause? You’ll get that here. And what about the rousing speech that motivates everyone to reach just a little bit further? Yes, that’s included too. If there’s one thing Disney is known for, it’s unashamedly injecting sentiment into these types of stories. However, even though this paints by the numbers, it does so with a level of earnestness that successfully hides many of its faults.
One of which is being yet another “white person going out of their way to help lowly people of color.” Here again, we have someone from a privileged race teaching minorities how to overcome their hardships, because they couldn’t do all on their own, right? This time, the story is told through the eyes of Jim White (Kevin Costner), a football coach whose anger management issues forces him to transfer to a school in McFarland, California. The majority of the population is Latino, with many citizens being migrant workers (including children). It is one of the worst communities in terms of poverty and education. How difficult is it for kids to aspire to greater things? Right next door to the high school is the local penitentiary.
Jim’s arrival is an immediate fish out of water scenario. His family knows nothing about Latino/Mexican culture. An early scene skirts exaggeration when the family attempts to eat out but has trouble ordering from a Spanish menu at a local restaurant. The scene makes it appear as though the family has never had a taco before. At school, Jim is met with suspicious eyes by both teachers and students who realize he isn’t there by choice. Obvious to say: things take some getting used to.
But given that this is a family film, race and class struggle are never deeply examined. The issues of poverty and crime are pushed into the background, leaving us with sports as the key to bring all these characters together. Seeing that many of the student athletes are too small to play football but are talented runners, Jim switches things around and dedicates his time creating and coaching the school’s first cross country team. How are these kids so good at running long distance? Many of them have to literally run from their homes (or from the fields) to school and back again.
Niki Caro directs Grant Thompson’s screenplay (story by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois) with an economical hand. All the plot points and character traits of genre are lined up in even fashion. We’ve seen this story well enough to know who’s who and what goes where. It’s a matter of whether or not the production is good enough for us to accept it all over again. For the most part it is. The sentiment never goes overboard to the point of being grating, particularly when the team starts winning and actually has a chance to compete in the state finals. The character traits are also familiar: the devoted wife (Maria Bello), the talented kid with the troubled home (Carlos Pratts), the kid who flirts with the law (Sergio Avelar). It’s all there.
What works best are the performances. Kevin Costner is convincing as the aged, somewhat in over his head family man and coach. There’s a weariness in Costner’s work, even when things start to turn out for the positive, he kind of gradually goes along with things. This approach works to heighten the impact of the later scenes, where Jim’s relationship with the kids builds and solidifies. Carlos Pratts also puts in fine work as Thomas. This is a person whose been betrayed and abandoned in his life, and believes that McFarland will be the only place he’ll ever know. Pratts is assigned with the widest range when it comes to emotionality, and he traverses the ups and downs believably.
The fact that race and class are lightly touched upon is a hindrance. Those tough issues are not tackled thoroughly enough, creating a missed opportunity. For example, to experience what the kids and their families go through as migrant workers, Jim volunteers to go out in the fields and pick produce as well. After one day of work, Jim collapses at home in a heap. This is meant to be a way for Jim to view the world outside of his own perspective, but what benefit does that make within this context? One day of work does not equal a lifetime of hard labor these people went through. Is Jim’s revelation all that meaningful? It’s dramatic short hand, a quick way to create respect and admiration without ever truly earning it.
I’m getting too far ahead of myself, though. McFarland, USA does accomplish what it sets out to do, and that’s to create a feel good experience for all. There are good intentions behind this, even when it contains a problem or two (or three). It doesn’t set itself apart from other films of its kind, but I suppose that’s not really a requirement. I wish there was more I could say, but for something that never strays away from the beaten path, there isn’t that much more to add.