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Friday, February 20, 2015

Movie Review: McFarland USA

Filled with feel-good sports moments and genuinely honest portrayals by its cast, McFarland USA sprints past the competition.

Review by Matt Cummings

There's a good chance you've never heard of Disney's McFarland USA, and yet you would be mistaken if such a lack of marketing didn't mean it wasn't completely worthy of your time. This drama about high school runners is a pitch-perfect, uplifting tale that separates itself from the common feel-good tripe, demanding your attention and inspiring you with its gigantic heart.

Set in the 1987 California farming town of McFarland, hot-headed and disgraced football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) drags his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and children to yet another job after he's fired (again) for assaulting an athlete. As soon as they arrive, Jim realizes that this nearly all-Hispanic town is economically disadvantaged, many of its students work in the fields rather than in the classroom, and very few of their parents have ever attended college. Although he joins McFarland's football team as an assistant, he soon finds himself being forced to step down because he tried to keep an athlete off the field after a vicious hit. Instead of disappearing from the school, Jim decides to start a cross country team and fills it with an odd assortment of fast runners. As his team deals with the pressures of field work and competing against more experienced programs, Jim realizes their potential is nearly limitless, spurring the town to support them as they make their way to California's first state championship.

It doesn't happen too often when a film "Based on a True Story" actually sells itself as honestly as McFarland does. And yet, we get just that here: a warm, feel-good story of determination and hope in the midst of what seems so little when the title card emerges. This is another submission in Disney's ongoing series of underdog sports films like the flawed Million Dollar Arm, which also emphasizes race/cultural relations and people of various backgrounds learning to work together; but McFarland gets all the ingredients right with a thoroughly likable cast of veterans and newer talent, all shepherded by capable direction in the Oscar-nominated Niki Caro. She realizes the mix is nothing new, but aligns all of her pieces into a competent and thoroughly inspiring tale that matures just like Jim and his team. She succeeds in giving many of her characters a breath of life that goes far beyond typical stereotypes, with Jim as the emotional center. It's his show, but the runners contribute as well with substantial moments of their own. And yet, it's never preachy, relying instead on situations to tell itself, as the boys battle their parents' preconceptions about their futures and their coach who's as different as anyone they've ever met.

Sure, Costner's been at this spot before, but I don't think I've seen him quite as good since Field of Dreams. As White, he learns to dial down his gruff but well-meaning personality while imbuing his runners with a sense of purpose far beyond the next meet. When he realizes that all of them can go to college and succeed, McFarland takes on an exciting new direction as the boys begin to realize that "Blanco" (as they call White) might actually have a point. Bello turns in a somewhat underwhelming role as Jim's wife, not because she's incapable but due entirely to runtime. While she's supportive but ultimately concerned about Jim's temper, there isn't enough time to develop her character beyond the typical coach's wife, although she does get a few moments to operate outside of it. The runners - Carlos Pratts, Hector Duran, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Sergio Avelar, and Michael Aguero - are all solid and enjoy at least one memorable moment as they're honed into a well-oiled running machine. We see the difficulty these boys face every day before they even get to school, providing needed work for their families, and ultimately teaching White a lesson when tries to join them in the fields.

McFarland USA won't win any awards, but it knows exactly what it is and excels at presenting it. Costner is the smooth operator here, surrounded by a thoroughly likable (if mostly unknown) cast and a script that leave any stereotypes in the dust. And while it's certain to get crushed by better advertised fare, I can't think of many films I could recommend right now than this. Its path will make you realize that great stories don't always need a bad guy to further them, and that pure determination can and will rule the day. Isn't that the definition of inspiring?

McFarland USA is rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language and has a runtime of 128 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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