This is a crowd-pleaser of a film
Letterboxd/Time Out film critic David Ehrlich has two very keen observations on Niki Caro’s new film McFarland, USA. For one, he states that it’s another film in the quietly condescending line of films where a white man learns that people of other races are “capable of being decent,” in an oddly funny but surprisingly true manner, especially with Costner’s Black or White still in multiplexes nationwide. And secondly, there’s the fact that McFarland, USA, despite being a Disney film about a sport (in this case, cross country), there is not a single training montage whatsoever in the film.
Ehrlich, however, overlooked one detail and that’s McFarland, USA is the best Disney sports film since Remember the Titans. After last year’s crushingly ordinary Million Dollar Arm, Disney rebounds with a film that not only understands its genre and the mental factor that comes into play for a cross country runner, but it understands minority culture very well, in this case, the life of Hispanic adolescents, who have been working in the fields since they were eleven and twelve years old. The film understands their roots, their struggles, and what it means for them to belong to something bigger than themselves, and it portrays such in a manner that isn’t empty and emotionally-manipulative but rich with insight and humanity.
The film opens with Jim White (Kevin Costner), a hot-headed football coach for a high school team that is getting destroyed at half time. After an outburst leads to a physical altercation with a player, White is dismissed with another blemish on an already tattered record. The only work he can find is in the working poor town of McFarland, California, where he relocates his family. “Are we in Mexico?,” his teenage daughter asks as they are driving through the streets of McFarland, observing the high volume of Hispanics.
Upon relocation, White becomes the Earth science and physical education teacher for McFarland High School. After taking note that a gaggle of the kids in his P.E. class can run at unearthly speeds for multiple laps, he suggests to the already overwhelmed principal of the underfunded school if a cross country team could be implemented. Push comes to shove, compromises are made, and White becomes the one to create a cross country team and seek out seven runners to populate the team. The issue in gathering the faster runners is that many of them are self-proclaimed “pickers,” or teenagers that spend their mornings out picking crops in the field with the parents, doing exhausting manual labor that, in turn, puts food on their tables. White has to combat this element while trying to give these kids something to be excited about.
The runners steal the show every chance they get, one of whom is Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), the team’s fastest runner. Valles is a troublemaker, offputting, but greatly troubled by an absent, workaholic father and a family falling apart at the seams. Three other runners are the Diaz brothers, the athletic Damacio (Michael Aguero) and David (Rafael Martinez), and the heavyset Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), who still bears enough motivation and heart to succeed.
I realize I may be summarizing McFarland, USA in what seems to be a posterbook of cliches, but the film’s slick handling of tough subjects is anything but shortchanging. Quite frequently does the film shift its focus from Costner’s White to the lives of the kids at hand, showing long hours in the picking fields along with stressful homelives that would break most privileged suburban children. These kids are warriors on the track and under their own roof, and the film does nothing but sympathize with their case rather than helplessly pitying them. Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson also make it so it doesn’t seem as if White is the “white knight” for these boys, as the boys recognize such strong, moral values themselves throughout the film and White is simply a vehicle to discovering those, as well.
Costner’s last film, Black or White, focusing on an ugly legal debate over the custody of Costner’s interracial granddaughter, released not even a month ago in the United States, was a lukewarm drama with race as a key factor, but condescending in its portrayal of many of its black characters. McFarland, USA is the complete opposite, filling the adolescent characters with heart, humanity, and a strong sense of character rather than making them sink with their lesser traits.
This is a crowd-pleaser of a film if I’ve ever seen one, and not the kind where the crowd is so pleased they forget to overlook huge issues like emotional manipulation, oversimplification, and blatant sociological flaws in depicting a culture or a group. McFarland, USA is an uncommonly strong film, not so much in its plot and its characters, all of which variations of things seen in the past or just familiar by convention, but there is such a strong depiction of culture and character in the film that that particular element is easy to ignore, given all the greatness on screen so pervasively.