McFarland, USA Director: Niki Caro
Screenwriters: Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Diana Maria-Riva, Johnny Ortiz, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Rafael Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez, Morgan Saylor, Martha Higareda and Valente Rodriguez
Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG | 129 Minutes
Release Date: February 20, 2015
Two sports films, two years in a row. Disney knows how to do this genre justice after hits including Remember The Titans, Miracle, and The Rookie. Last year’s Million Dollar Arm underperformed and failed to receive the attention it deserved.
2015 brings McFarland, USA, another sports movie vehicle for Kevin Costner, recently experiencing a major jump in film output. Despite the inevitable comparisons to Disney’s other entries in this category, McFarland, USA finishes ahead of the pack in quality and overall excellence.
The “inspired by a true story” mantra may appear tired, as these account for Oscar bait and those selections you may avoid because you assume you know exactly what you will be obtaining. I was most pleased to see that McFarland, USA, thanks to Caro’s direction, the general top-notch delivery by the cast and a moving storyline, this one verges off the beaten path. This is one movie where word-of-mouth marketing matters, as the more notable February releases and upcoming March titles will likely cover up any notice to this worthwhile film-going experience.
Costner plays Jim White, a down-on-his-luck high school coach whose last name gets its fair share of notice, for he and his family move to McFarland, California. This economically disadvantaged town, especially at the time of its 1987 depiction, seemed to possess residents who never knew another life. White, referred to as “Blanco” by the students whose life backgrounds could not seem more different from his own, starts a cross country team at McFarland High School.
These young men have an innate ability to tirelessly work from before dawn until hours past the sun setting. They work on the fields picking crops with their fathers early in the morning, race off to school, and return there later in the day. White sees their potential in running cross country, even if these boys do not see it in themselves. Seem like a generic sports movie based on the general description? Think again.
Costner engages some of his best work in years as a mentor and father figure to these boys, some of them coming from homes with difficult dads themselves. Others, as we see, have loving families who take White, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), and daughters into their community. The Whites initially seem like outcasts based on their skin color, but we all know that the power of kindness and love can always prevail. This is where McFarland, USA succeeds most poignantly.
Disney does not shy away from depicting the harshness that plagues these boys’ lives. We see their struggles, whether it is waking up at 4:30 in the morning to head to the fields or coming home to observe a father returning from incarceration. Costner and Carlos Pratts (who plays Thomas Valles) share a thoughtful scene set late at night that demonstrates the pain these kids endure. Not to give much of it away, but these few minutes involve such a non-sappy heaviness and compassion that transcends its sports film genre.
At its core, McFarland, USA is a story of people who persevere despite the odds. These seemingly shocking cross country champions, led by White, help put their town on the map. As we learn by the end of the film, White’s coaching abilities in empowering these young men continued on for many, many years. The last scene of the film — the standard “where are they now?” update — is also one of the greatest I have seen, from the respect of actually integrating the real-life personalities into the movie.
Million Dollar Arm, as much as I revered that feature, suffered from a few flaws. It lacked a focus on the main athletes, instead shifting the focus too much on the business nature of their sports agent. Additionally, its tone and messaging seemed a little at odds with one another at moments. Nevertheless, it stands as one of my favorites from Disney in the sports film category.
I am glad to say that McFarland, USA avoids these issues, in that it more than adequately gives us context to the athletes’ experiences. Yes, Kevin Costner is the leading man, but I would suggest that each actor who portrays a member of the cross country team stands out. Many of them lack much film acting experience, but you could not tell in watching these guys on screen. Bello and Morgan Saylor offer nice supporting work, too. The movie never comes across as preachy nor condescending whatsoever. It strikes me as a movie that knows itself in how to accurately depict real individuals who have relatable difficulties.
Moviegoers will probably fall in one of two categories: those who enjoy sports films are bound to see this one as a winner in many regards; others may be older audience members seeking some variety in the current options available to them. Disney, as well as other studios, discusses the importance of distributing films that fall into “four quadrants” based on gender and age.
I honestly think anyone can appreciate the value that McFarland, USA affords. It is an inspirational story that does not manipulate your heartstrings nor make you roll your eyes. Supporting more movies like director Niki Caro‘s latest will hopefully mean that smart, moving, and exciting films be produced to complement the typical CGI, based-on-a-book/television show/product that dominates the medium of entertainment.
McFarland, USA earns prestigious medals all around.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.