Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: McFarland, USA

by Adam Riske
What a nice and pleasant experience.

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.
Inspired by a true story, McFarland, USA follows coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), whose recent firing at a mostly white school leads him to a predominantly Latino high school where he struggles to find common ground with his new community. After noticing his students’ exceptional running ability, Coach White forms a cross-country team. The performances in the movie are strong across the board; the stand out is of course Costner, who has the most satisfying character arc, going from outsider to valued member of this Latino community. Often (sometimes fairly) maligned for his stiff acting, I feel like it’s worth noting that Costner is kind of on a roll. Since 2005’s The Upside of Anger, the actor is often the best part of every movie he’s in. He seems more confident, re-energized and in control than ever and those qualities imbue McFarland, USA with a quiet dignity and authority it might not have had with another actor. Its perfect casting; a sports coach is one of those roles that Costner was born to play.

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 Quincea├▒era. It is so sweet and well-handled that I would recommend seeing the movie for that scene alone.
The movie has a few eye rolling moments. It comes with a lot of the expected clich├ęs, including one of the kids’ fathers who is a bastard but then shows up to the big race to cheer his son on, the fat kid who becomes the anchor for the team, the hard to reach kid who is the key to the team’s success, etc. There is also a scene that is sort of ridiculous where Costner works in the fields with his students one day so he can see how difficult they have it (some of the runners split their time between school and picking food in the fields with their parents to earn a living). It’s a sequence that screams of white guilt and feels more than a bit forced.

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.
McFarland, USA is far from original and it’s not trying to re-invent the sports movie genre in any way, but it is entertaining and has something worthwhile to say especially about community. When a movie is this sincere, it’s easy to excuse all of its conventional elements. While I don’t feel the need to gush over McFarland, USA, it is a movie I would recommend. I’d be surprised if you were to watch it and come away from it feeling slighted or dissatisfied. It certainly worked for me.


  1. The world is a better place with live-action Disney movies. They have a secret recipe for cheesy comfort-food cinema that's always tasty, even if it's not gourmet. I think it's time to bring Kurt Russell back into the picture. Maybe for a reboot of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

    1. I agree. Kurt Russell is terrific in Miracle and I would love to see him back in a Disney sports movie, maybe baseball related, being that he has a family history with the sport. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Dismal movie. White guilt fest. Costner needs to retire. 200lb cross country runners, what a joke.