by Sandra Kraisrideja
McFarland, USA, starring Kevin Costner and Maria Bello, is an enjoyable, heartwarming movie that has all the trademark elements of a Disney sports biopic.
The formula usually goes something like this: washed up, down-on-his-luck coach gets a job coaching a team filled with misfits, losers or some combination thereof; there is some physical, social or economic hurdle that must be overcome; in the end the coach succeeds in creating a winning team, thereby beating the odds and changing his life and the lives of those on his team.
There seems to be no shortage of inspirational sports stories based on actual events, with football, baseball, hockey, and basketball all getting the Disney treatment. This time around, the sport in question is cross country running.
Directed by the assured hand of Niki Caro (Whale Rider) from a script by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, McFarland, USA is a movie about an underdog beating the odds, the value of community and discovering what is truly important.
Costner is Jim White, a football coach who gets fired from his post and must settle for a teaching job in McFarland, CA, a farming community in the Central Valley with a predominantly Latino population. Bello is his supportive and loving wife, Cheryl.
Upon arriving in McFarland, White’s youngest daughter remarks, “Are we in Mexico?” The Whites are definitely the minority in McFarland but in typical Disney fashion, the racial tension is glossed over. The Whites get into a bit of trouble their first night in town but the threat never escalates and the movie goes out of its way to show how accepting the townsfolk are of their new citizens.
After getting into a disagreement with the head coach of the high school football team, White finds himself in need of a new sport. As the school’s PE coach it doesn’t take him long to see some of his students have a real knack for running. Noticing there is money to be gotten for the state if he forms a cross country running team he quickly gets to work recruiting his team.
Costner does good work in McFarland, USA and the role that suits him well. Bello is dependable as always and makes the supporting role more significant just by her presence. They are supported by a solid cast of actors who help make the world of McFarland, USA much more interesting.
The biggest obstacle for the team is economic. Farming is the lifeblood of the community and the movie shows how some of White’s students have jobs working the fields as pickers when they aren’t in school. For many, the future doesn’t involve college or jobs outside of working the fields.
That all changes as the team starts winning more races. Now the students have a chance to attend college on scholarships and get themselves out of McFarland. The movie does a good job showing the surprising way in which White’s life also improves with his involvement with the team.
In her movies Caro has never shied away from emotion but it never feels forced. McFarland, USA is a solid film that benefits from her ability to capture the emotional center of the story and make it resonate.