As sports movies go, “McFarland, USA” is pretty routine.
Is it based on a true story? Yep.
Is it about a team of underdogs? You bet.
Are the underdogs coached by an embattled has-been? Of course they are, and you’ll never guess who.
Is the has-been coach played by Kevin Costner, the go-to headliner for approximately seven out of 10 sports films since 1985? Who else could it have been?
On the surface, “McFarland, USA” feels about as original as another repackaged Beatles’ greatest hits album. “Hoosiers” fans have nothing to fear from this one.
And yet, “McFarland, USA” carries an undeniable appeal. It is a fun movie. It is also a positive movie. It’s a movie that the entire family can enjoy together. And given your options at the theater this time of year, you probably should.
“McFarland, USA” is based on the true story of coach Jim White, who formed the McFarland High School cross-country team back in the late 1980s. At the time, he was a down-on-his-luck football coach with a Norman Dale-like track record. As the film begins, White moves his white, middle-class family into the heavily Hispanic town of McFarland to take a job at the only school that will take him.
Costner does a great job portraying the fish out of water, who takes a hard look at the student body and realizes they are a lot better conditioned for running cross-country than knocking helmets on the football field. “McFarland, USA” covers the story of that first season, and the line White walks between staying in town and running off for whiter pastures.
Anyone who is surprised by how things eventually play out hasn’t seen a lot of sports movies, but that isn’t the point. The thing that is impressive about “McFarland, USA” is the way it tugs on its underdog heartstrings.
Much of the movie is fixed on the plight of its underdogs. The team is manned by a group of seven Mexican-American teens who spend full-time hours working in the nearby fields when they aren’t in class. Their prospects are as hopeful as the hammered shoes they use for school, work, running and church.
The message of racial harmony is obvious, but director Niki Caro’s effort is less heavy-handed than some other big-screen explorations of racial tension. There are sure to be those who will criticize “McFarland, USA” for being a soft Disney take on a serious issue, or might even lament Costner as yet another "white Savior." But for anyone looking for a positive story that will make you want to be a better person, “McFarland, USA” is exactly that.
For one thing, “McFarland” is a lot of fun. Costner may be the headliner, but his runners bring plenty to the training table. Thomas (Carlos Pratt) is the team’s de facto leader, a quiet kid whose father would rather have him working in the fields than sticking his head in books at school. His success is just as inspiring to watch as Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez), one of three brothers on the team who looks better suited as a running back than a cross-country anchor.
“McFarland, USA” uses characters like these to produce a handful of genuinely touching moments, never more sincere than when the community helps Coach White put on a Quinceañera for his 15-year-old daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor).
Like the best sports movies, “McFarland, USA” makes sure the action on the field is only one part of the cinematic spectrum. And in this case, it’s a spectrum worth seeing.
“McFarland, USA” is rated PG for some violence, profanity and vulgarity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.