Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello
McFarland USA, from director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), is far better than I ever expected from a Disney film. What looks from the trailer like another inspirational sports film, this time centered on cross country, is far from it. McFarland USA is about just what the title says it is: an unheard of small town outside of Bakersfield, CA. For at least the first 20 minutes I couldn’t stop comparing it to a film that just debuted last month called Spare Parts that is set up the same way: poor Mexican teens in need of a role model and a way out. McFarland USA turns into something very different, something that had audiences in tears and universal applause not once, but four times before the credits.
Dismissed from his previous football coaching job, Jim White (Costner) finds a job as a PE teacher in McFarland USA. He uproots his family, including wife (Bello) and two daughters, to live in a town that has one Mexican restaurant and chickens for neighbors. Many of the teenagers work for their families picking vegetables before and after school, and their options are limited to working the fields or prison, which is conveniently located beside the high school. White, who the kids call “Blanco”, sees what a handful of the young students can do with their legs and motivates them to start running and to look at cross country as a way to go to college and have more options in life.
What McFarland USA does that I haven’t seen the previous films, is focus on the place more than the coach, players or the sport itself.
We have run the gamut of sports films and every interesting true story within; in the 90’s it was African American sports films, and now it seems we get to hear the inspirational stories of Mexican students who beat all odds. What McFarland USA does that I haven’t seen the previous films, is focus on the place more than the coach, players or the sport itself. It’s interesting how White gets involved in the cross country sport as a way to further his career and get out of this forgotten town, but it’s that very thing that ends up changing not only his life, but literally the entire town. Caro, as she has done in the past, sheds light on unlikely places like McFarland, CA, where mostly Mexican immigrants work and farm the land to make a living. It’s also a place where riches of culture and family are valued high above wealth and ambition.
As Costner continues to stake a career comeback, this performance and the film in general is far more engaging and moving than his previous Black or White. Ironically enough, this one could be called White or Brown. You get to leave this film not only with an incredible, triumphant story, but it also provides knowledge and education on Mexican heritage as well as exploring modern day difficulties of poor, hard-working families all across America. It’s also a film about perspective, and when the McFarland team manages to barely place 4th place in their first race, with all the other runners hooping and hollering in celebration, Coach White turns around and sees his small 7 runners on their knees praying.
Caro elevates this far beyond a sports film, it’s about heritage and family.