film reel image

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

McFarland, USA 2015 * * * Stars

Director: Niki Caro
Year: 2015
Rated PG
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts

I've never been a huge fan of Disney sports movies. For every Invincible, there's a Herbie Fully Loaded. For every Remember the Titans, there's a Snow Buddies. It's all sugar coated, gerrymander stuff that doesn't quite deliver an emotional wallop. Enter McFarland, USA, the type of Disney inducement that sort of breaks the mold. Now granted, I wouldn't rank it as one of the best of its genre. It doesn't grab you by the lapels and make you get all teary-eyed like Hoosiers and Rudy (two of my all-time favorites). I will say however that next to last year's Million Dollar Arm, this 2015 release is probably the best sports flick to come out of Walt Disney Pictures, a production company that's been around before films even had the luxury of sound (we're talking over eighty years ago to be exact).

Directed by Niki Caro who oversaw the critically acclaimed Whale Rider (2002), McFarland, USA is based on a freshening true story that's long overdue. As you watch the events depicted via the year 1987, you wonder why it took so long for things to get greenlighted. Could it be the fear that a movie about cross country running might come across as boring or trivial? Maybe. Does it really matter at this point? Not so much. Critics have embraced it. Audiences seem to be eating it up. So to quote a song lyric from the late, great Jim Morrison, "nothing left to do but run, run, run, let's run."

Anyway, the story begins with real life football coach Jim White (played by Kevin Costner). The film's opening scene which is its weakest asset, shows him getting into a confrontation with his snobbish quarterback/captain. He argues with him, throws a cleat at his locker, said jock gets a cut on the face, and Jimbo gets fired from his job. Along with his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello in a side role that she could play in her sleep) and his two daughters, White moves from Boise, Idaho to one of the poorest towns in America being McFarland, California. He's there to take a second rate job (the only job he could get) as an assistant football coach. After yet again being asked to step down, he's handcuffed to just the role of a physical education teacher. It's within this realm that he learns about how fast his students can run. This gives Jim an idea: he's gonna convince the principal to back the first cross country team in the history of McFarland High. White will be the coach and all he has to do is find seven male runners. This sparks a plethora of comradery, friendship, father figure interludes, and determination between Costner's White and his underprivileged speed demons. As a team, they start to make waves at various running meets and eventually hightail it to the California state championships. "McFarland's" main conflict therefore, is the question of whether or not Jim is trying to boost his resume. He could get offered another job in a nicer town that's less poverty-stricken. He also could stay in McFarland seeing that him and his family become so attached to a community of hard working pickers with not so bright futures.

Now McFarland, USA is a conventional yet well filmed sports drama. With a little heart, a little tug, and a little shine courtesy of Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, it gets the job done. The running scenes are profusely shot with the Southwest California landscape glistening in the background. Its authenticity is paramount showcasing unknown, young cast members (from what I read, actual students from McFarland High School as well) and the mighty Kevin Costner whose old world weariness, scruffy demeanor, and acting as veritable comfort food deem him perfect for the role of Jim White.

Yeah the outcome here might be a little predictable, the racial stereotyping of cultural differences (between Americans and Hispanics) overwhelms key scenes, "McFarland" is sometimes, forcefully mean spirited, and the opening sequence of Costner's White as volatile, coaching henchman seems totally undernourished (not to mention unconvincing). However, what's on screen is to a degree, admirable family fare (PG-style). And Costner being so synonymous with sports bids, can faithfully add this one to his greatest hits collection (alongside Field of Dreams, Draft Day, and Tin Cup).

In conclusion, this is feel good, fast food stuff that's not in any sense, preheated. McFarland, USA is a place to go to in your mind, a movie to see. Rating: 3 enduring stars.

Of note: I loved the final credits montage. It showcases the real life runners, their real life coach, and the current state of the actual McFarland High School. It also explains in worded titles, what they are up to in their lives (roughly twenty-eight years later). It's indeed heartwarming and very well done.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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