Tommy Anderson | Thursday, March 26, 2015
Disney has found and perfected its niche for true story lines about athletes as underdogs coming out on top, and “McFarland, USA” is just that.
Based on a true story that began in 1987, “McFarland” relives the tale of a high school teacher, Jim White, played by Kevin Costner, who finds himself as the head of an athletic department in central California. To say that his position is less-than-desirable is an understatement, as the film follows the fish-out-of-water Caucasian coach as he tries to settle into a Latino community. Of course, Disney has sharpened all the jagged edges, especially when dealing with race relations. I expected watered down one-liners intended to allow viewers to sit back in their seats instead of worrying about the play of racism, but to my surprise, the film scrutinizes several harsh realities. It is fair to say that Disney has mastered meshing societal reality fiction with sports drama with “McFarland, USA.”
If you find yourself getting a bit bored during the film, realize that the initial slow pace of the movie is intentional. The viewer gets to sympathize with the group of Mexican teenagers, as they spend every sunrise and sunset bent over in a field, picking lettuce. But soon, cultures collide, and the momentum picks up, highlighted by a motivational training sequence. From an outsider’s view, the film is yet another one of Disney’s formulaic melodramas. That is because from the beginning, we know that the bad boys are going to learn their lesson, that the coach will change himself and the kids, and the town in which they live will laugh at the crazy idea until it works. In defense of Disney’s cinema empire, if the formula is working so well, there’s no reason to change it. But still, “McFarland” delivers far more than expected.
There is a moment when Costner gets a shot at giving a pre-race motivational speech, but it’s small in scope and wonderfully centered on what the boys have accomplished rather than some farfetched shot at changing the world. Costner is never hailed to the viewers as representing some Godsend hero for these boys, as he shouldn’t be, but the boys recognize such strong, moral values themselves throughout the film and White’s purpose is simply a vehicle to discovering those.
The film is extremely likable, and the story’s roots in the real world lend credence to the inspirational message and underdog-overcoming-obstacles story. There is no doubt that Disney ventures very little from their formulaic underdog sports movie, but “McFarland” is more than just a story about a bunch of runners. The film offers the opportunity to be touched and inspired by the little guy stuck in the grips of poverty. Most of the film is exposition about the characters and more specifically about how difficult their lives are. If nothing else, “McFarland” will leave you with an appreciation for their lifestyle and sympathy for what being stuck in the underbelly of the country is like. More impressively, the film details how success came out of what little they had and how it took an outsider to realize their potential.
This is a feel-good movie that is expertly directed by Niki Caro, who has delivered some solid films in the past (“North Country” and “Whale Rider”). Caro hails as one of the many recent uprising female directors with a strong presence in Hollywood and someone whose work I will be subscribing to in the future.