by Adam Riske
McFarland, USA is the latest Disney sports movie and like many of its predecessors it succeeds admirably on its intentions. The influences of other movies are all over this one, but being that I am a fan of most Disney sports movies (including Remember the Titans, Miracle and Cool Runnings) that wasn’t a problem for me. The studio has this type of movie down to a science, and combining their formula with sports movie MVP Kevin Costner is a no-brainer. I expected McFarland, USA to be energetic, rousing and inspirational and it is.
Sometimes movies resonate with you more because they find you when they need you. That was the case with me and this movie. For the past few days, I’ve been a bit down in the dumps; not depressed, but just sad. I’ve been up all night for a couple of nights straight worrying about this and that and after seeing McFarland, USA my spirits were significantly lifted. It’s that kind of movie -- one that will make you feel all warm and fuzzy.
The movie is also very well directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country). It’s refreshing to see a director adhere to the three act structure of storytelling and the sense of competency and professionalism she displays here is something I appreciate. Caro and the screenwriters do a good job of keeping the racing sequences involving and easy to follow, even if you’re like me and didn’t know anything about the rules of cross-country running going into the movie. But the real feather in the cap of the filmmakers is the specificity they bring to the movie. More important than the sports elements are the scenes depicting the runners' lives outside of school and their dynamic within their families. I absolutely adored one sequence in the movie where the whole town comes together to throw Costner’s oldest daughter a Quinceañera. It is so sweet and well-handled that I would recommend seeing the movie for that scene alone.
And yet despite being formulaic, McFarland, USA is a rich and rewarding experience. It’s overflowing with themes of class, responsibility and friendship and is a fine depiction of a man who learns the value in empathizing with people not like himself and embracing a different culture and community. It’s all about the axiom “you get out of it what you put into it.” I also love how the movie shows that an activity as simple as running can be a positive influence on someone’s life, providing an escape and something that they can use to feel good about themselves and/or lead to better opportunities in their life.