Movies about athletes who are victorious despite overwhelming odds are always infectious and teeter precariously on the edge of being cliched. And even if they do become a little corny, there is no harm in them and the overall effect is that they are pleasing.
“McFarland, USA,” based upon a true story, is one such movie. In fact it could be described as the cross-country-running version of “Hoosiers.”
In this case it’s Kevin Costner playing the pivotal role of the high school teacher/coach on the brink of a career implosion who gets one last chance and is lucky enough to have the right mix of circumstances and people to pull off a life-changing event.
Much like Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in “Hoosiers,” a college basketball coach who after a violent encounter with one of his players can only get a job coaching at a small high school in Indiana, Costner’s Jim White finds himself in a similar situation after an unfortunate locker room incident with a disrespectful player during the half-time of a football game in which the team is getting blown out. This set-to is another breakdown of control by White, and as a result the only job offer he gets is as a science teacher and assistant football coach at the high school in McFarland, an impoverished Central California town.
McFarland’s population is primarily Latino, people who labor long hours picking crops. The family is the backbone of the community and generation after generation assumes the mantel of working long hours to provide for their families.
White, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor), 15, and Jamie (Elsie Fisher), 10, arrive in McFarland in the fall of 1987 full of apprehension. But despite their preconceived notions they are not met with hostility.
At the high school, things go bad for White immediately with an on-field disagreement between the coaches during a 63-0 blowout suffered by their team. White is soon demoted to science teacher/PE coach.
It is during the PE classes, and before and after school, that White notices that a handful of boys seem to run great distances effortlessly, so he proposes starting a cross-country team.
He manages to get seven boys to join the team, scoring a superb runner, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), and although the team finishes last in its first competitive effort, a four-school invitational, the McFarland runners on their next outing just barely lose to a top caliber team.
“McFarland” follows the blueprint of such sports stories, showing White, who is basically learning on his own while he coaches, as he gets the boys to sharpen their running skills. He knows he has a strong foundation — these boys are tough. They have to be.
There are the usual setbacks. Top-runner Thomas has family issues with a workaholic father and a younger sister who has become pregnant. Three of the team members are the Diaz brothers, Damasio (Michael Aguero), David (Rafael Martinez) and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), the latter being the least gifted but with a lot of desire, who have to balance their cross-country efforts while also working for their father in the fields.
As the team’s surprising successes mount, it proves a boost to the community, and led by Senora Diaz (a scene-stealing Diana Maria Diva), money is raised for uniforms and running shoes.
“McFarland” is a story about fortitude that leads to achievement, but also a study of growing respect and how a family can assimilate in an unfamiliar setting and learn lessons about life — like friendship and security — that cannot be bought.
Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), “McFarland” was the product of three screenwriters — Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson — a collaboration that might raise red flags about massive rewrites. But the story moves smoothly. Costner is at ease here with his work as White, a man who is blessed with instincts but who also threatens to derail things with his impetuous behavior. Bello has a few moments as the firm foundation in the household, the person with the best family perspective.
The young actors playing the runners — also included were Johnny Ortiz as Jose Cardenas and Sergio Avelar as Victor Puentes — do a credible job of portraying teens who are not accustomed to being told they can accomplish something special.
“McFarland, USA” is the type of feel-good movie that can be refreshing alternative amid the action movies and intense dramas.