McFarland, USA, doesn’t stray away from the typical feel-good Disney formula, but thanks to a fitting performance by Kevin Costner, the film manages to take an old theme concerning family, and make it feel fresh.
McFarland, USA, won’t blow you away with its plot – seven Mexican-Americans kids forming a cross country team – and frankly, it doesn’t try too.
Instead the movie leaves it to Costner and the supporting cast to create simple moments that take viewers through a range of emotions.
Costner plays Jim White, a man forced to move his family to the city of McFarland, Calif., because it’s the only place where he could get a coaching and teaching gig after an incident at a previous school that put a black mark on his coaching reputation. But that’s okay – White may have had some anger issues in the past, but by the time he comes to McFarland, he has gotten a bit soft.
Unlike some of his recent work as leading man (3 Days to Kill, Swing Vote, Mr. Brooks), Costner doesn’t oversell his role. The part of loving father and coach that’s a little bit of a hardass seems to fit him just right.
The supporting cast shines as well, starting with Principal Camillo played by Valente Rodriguez. At first, you’re not sure how anyone could take the pudgy, mustachioed Rodriguez seriously as a school administrator. Nevertheless, when the moment came, Rodriguez was convincing as a disciplinary authority trying his best to keep a school afloat, in an area that desperately needs quality education.
Also, the veteran actor Danny Mora, gives a noteworthy performance as the local store manager. He imparts words of wisdom to White that are both funny and memorable. Mora and Rodriguez, as well a hodgepodge of other actors and actresses, help Costner in creating the familial atmosphere the film centers on.
At the same time, the film’s screenwriting team does well to not give the student runners in the movie long stretches of dialogue, because like most teenage actors, they just aren’t that good. But director Niki Caro makes sure to use their spare pieces of dialogue for small moments of comic relief and drama.
But hold on – the film doesn’t get everything right, as this wouldn’t be a Disney movie without blatant moments of manipulation.
For one, I understand the need to show the dangers of the town of McFarland, but really? Did this revelation have to come on the evening of White’s daughter’s quinceanera (it’s like the sweet 16 of Mexican culture)? And White taking the team to San Jose to frolic in the ocean feels like an out of water moment (pun most definitely intended). Also, it’s not likely the courses were as treacherous as viewers were made to believe. The average cross country course is around three miles, so the most they could go uphill continuously at any point is about 1.5 miles. I’m not saying the courses aren’t hard – it takes a lot of will power to run cross country – but going up mountains for as long as the film made it look seems a bit ridiculous. Then again, the film’s target audience is probably people that wouldn’t know the difference. And to its credit, the picture does a good job in explaining some of the nuances of cross country running, a sport that’s athletes don’t get enough recognition.
Moreover, director Caro makes a clever choice in never putting a face to the wickedness lurking within the neighborhood. It’s good enough for the film to hint at the existence of bad people, but illustrate overall that communities, no matter how poor or neglected they may be, are full of good people that live for one another. And that’s the difference between McFarland, USA and other Disney sports films like Remember the Titans, The Mighty Ducks, or Million Dollar Arm. The sense of family and unity is not highlighted within the sports team itself, but the surrounding neighborhood.
By the end of the movie, viewers understand that the opportunity for something better shouldn’t be taken for granted. But the chance to be adopted by a communal family – a second family that protects you from the bad things in life – well… that’s something you’re lucky to ever find.