Jim White's California Dreaming: McFarland, USA
Some of Kevin Costner's best work has come in sports pictures. He's connected to baseball with the movies Bull Durham and Field Of Dreams, each of which takes a unique look at the sport. In Tin Cup, he played a golfer who tries to win the US Open. In Draft Day, he played a general manager hired to build a winner from a franchise with a long run of losing. In McFarland, USA, which is set in 1987. he plays Jim White, a former football coach relegated to teaching physical education and lifesciences at a California high school where the students seem very uninterested in either. As he teaches PE, he notices that some of his students can run fast. In fact, he follows student Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) as he runs home. Thomas doesn't like the idea of being followed, or of the idea Coach White develops. While football isn't an option, he approaches Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) with the idea of starting a cross country program, with funding coming from the state. Camillo likes that, but Coach White now needs seven students interested in competing for the school while he learns the rules of the sport. Football outcast Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran) not only becomes his first runner, but White wants Johnny to recruit the other six - especially Thomas.
Things don't go well, as Coach learns that these students have few prospects after high school. Much of their time away from school consists of working with their families in the nearby fields, harvesting crops so they can eat. The local prison stands next to the high school, reminding the teens of their limited options. A school altercation gets Thomas and another students spots on the team instead of suspensions, while Johnny gets enough students interested to make the minimum required for a team. They train for their first meet, and finish last among the four teams. Meanwhile, White comes to learn about the team and their community. In spite of being new to McFarland, the residents of the town treat Jim, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) well. In spite of their reservations, they rally around Coach White and the team, who learn as they go about their sport and soon start to surprise opponents. The Coach also talks about possibilities sports can bring them, including a college education. The success of the team also brings a job offer for another cross country position in a much more affluent place.
McFarland, USA, which is based on the actual run of McFarland, combines a typical uplifting sports picture with a blending of cultures. When the Whites move into their home, their next door neighbor givrs the family a rooster. When the parents of White's team learn Julie has turned fifteen, they insist on throwing her a quinceanera to celebrate. While some of the negatives about McFarland life get covered, director Niki Caro wisely focuses on the best aspects of sports and small-town culture. While I like the slow bridging of culutre gaps, Caro saves the best moment in the film for last. The shots of the real McFarland and most of the real members of that team are the most special moments of the film. Among those who worked on the script were Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, who also wrote the 2006 basketball movie Glory Road about a college team who made history in their tourney run.
Costner once again slips easily into a sports-related role. Jim White is a good guy in a bad spot. His last coaching gig before McFarland ended badly, and he couldn't even get along with McFarland's head football coach. McFarland is the last place he wants to be, but the school is the only one who gives him a chance. The cross country job becomes a learning experience, but Jim prepares with research and observation. He also develops a rapport with his team as he listens to the concerns of his runners while showing them how to expect more from themselves. Once the teams make time for training and their other responsibilities, Jim needs a bike to keep up with them. The rest of the cast does a respectable job, with Pratts impressing as the troubled Thomas. I also liked Ramiro Rodriguez as the easy-going Danny Diaz, the team's anchor who understands he holds the primary job of keeping his other teammates ahead of him so the Cougars earn as low a score as possible.
McFarland, USA not only shows its local color in terms of culture, but also in terms of its season. By the time cross country season ends in California, teams would already be into the winter sports of basketball, swimming, and wrestling by me. McFarland, USA shows how a team came together and exceeded expectations in a sport they were learning from meet to meet. At times, the coach and his runners become preoccupied with their personal situations, but they see how committing to the team has its rewards. While life doesn't provide any of them with an ideal situation, they make the most of their situation, and learn to see possibilities that they never thought they would.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give McFarland, USA 3.5 stars. Uno, dos, tres, McFarland!