Four stars. Rated PG, for mild dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.20.15
For crowd-pleasing cinema, it’s hard to beat an inspirational underdog sports saga.
Particularly one that’s true. (Well, mostly.)
Director Niki Caro and the team behind McFarland USA have the formula down cold, with an engaging blend of character drama, cross-cultural tension and stirring competition. Caro is blessed with an eye and ear for the plight of disenfranchised people who sometimes feel like strangers in their own country; she’s the New Zealand-based filmmaker who came to our attention with 2002’s stirring Whale Rider, and followed up with the equally compelling North Country.
Both those films concerned women stymied in their efforts to succeed on their own terms, and forced to battle long-established conventions steeped in predominantly male cultures.
McFarland USA trades gender wars for a gentle analysis of the class structure that exists in this country, and the cynical hopelessness endured by those who live on the wrong side of that divide. Caro and her writers — Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson — are smart enough to eschew strident sermons, recognizing that the lessons here will go down more smoothly in an environment of optimism and compassion.
On top of which, the story cleverly rotates the social barrier, by making its central character and his family — products of so-called privileged society — the “outsiders” in an environment that feels completely alien, and has its own longstanding rules of behavior and attitude.
High school football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) has a history of anger-management issues. Bounced from one school to another, acquiring a dismal reputation along the way, in the autumn of 1987 he bottoms out in California’s San Joaquin Valley agricultural community of McFarland. As he and his family — wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) — drive slowly through town, searching for their new home, the latter curiously asks, “Are we in Mexico?”
It’s a brave opening gambit, because the movie succeeds or fails right there: The slightest whiff of censure, disapproval or arrogance, and the story slides into uncomfortably racist territory. But Caro understands the peril involved, and she draws just the right line reading from young Fisher.
The moment passes safely, but is followed by several more; we still unconsciously hold our breath. The living room of the Whites’ new home is dominated by an overpowering image painted directly onto the wall. The elderly woman next door presents them with a “new neighbor” gift: a chicken. The local car culture roars past the house late into each night; roosters blast them out of bed each dawn.
The McFarland High School principal — Valente Rodriguez, in a solid supporting role — greets White warmly but warily, well aware of his new coach’s past, but willing to gamble. White immediately clashes with his fellow football coach (Chris Jenks): the story’s only other notable Caucasian, and a contemptuous slacker jerk.
White’s presence becomes tenuous, his ability as an authority figure crippled by the Latino students who delight in using his name, not out of respect, but as an ironic joke. (Indeed, we have to believe that God’s sense of humor was working overtime, in this instance ... because Jim and Cheryl White are actual people, as are this story’s other key players.)
Maintaining anything approaching a full phys-ed class is compromised further by the unexcused absences of numerous boys who are ordered back to work in the fields, every day, by parents who need the income provided by every possible set of hands.
Boys whose parents nonetheless insist that they complete their class work, to the best of their ability. Boys who couldn’t possibly afford cars, to get back and forth. Boys who therefore run to and from school, sometimes twice a day. Boys who are tough and hardened, from all that work in the fields.
Watching this, White is tickled by a wild, seemingly absurd notion.
And, just like that, he becomes McFarland High’s first-ever cross-country coach. What follows may as well be magic, and it certainly reflects the power of inspiration and hope.
Assembling the team proves difficult on several levels, but White perseveres and winds up with a squad of seven more-or-less willing recruits.
They’re all engaging young actors, led by Carlos Pratts, as the well-muscled but truculent Thomas, the kid with the biggest chip on his shoulder, and the most precarious home life. Although outwardly defiant, Thomas is inwardly miserable: resigned to a life of hardship like that endured by his father, and contemptuous of any “outsider” offering a long shot path to ... well, anything else.
It’s another of this film’s many carefully shaded performances, and Pratts handles it well. He’s also unexpectedly endearing with Saylor, as Thomas and Julie begin to eye each other.
Sergio Avelar’s Victor is the preening, smart-mouthed young stud, forever challenging White with glib back-chat: bait to which the coach knows he dare not rise. One look, and we figure Victor is the kid most likely to go bad. In contrast, Hector Duran’s Johnny is the amiable and perceptive optimist: the first boy to bond with White, and the forever smiling catalyst who gets the team together.
Johnny Ortiz’s Jose also is cheerful, but perhaps unwisely headstrong. Finally, Rafael Martinez, Michael Aguero and Ramiro Rodriguez display a goofy, Three Musketeers-ish vibe as the three Diaz brothers: David, Damacio and Danny. Rodriguez stands out as the stalwart, plus-size Danny, who accepts White’s mentorship and refuses to let his weight be an obstacle. White, in turn, regards Danny as the squad’s Rock of Gibraltar.
The unfolding storyline is ripe with warm-hearted encounters involving various sidebar characters, starting with Danny Mora’s Sammy Rosaldo, who owns the local grocery/convenience store, which famously hasn’t closed for a day since he founded the business. Rosaldo gives White plenty of good-natured guidance as the weeks pass; in a similar manner, Cheryl surprises herself by establishing an unlikely friendship with Lupe (Martha Higareda), who runs a downtown nail salon/beauty parlor.
The film’s most endearing sequence, though, comes when White visits the Diaz home, in an effort to persuade the boys’ parents — Omar Leyva and Diana Maria Riva — to let them remain on the team. Civility dictates that White accept the offer to join this large and boisterous family at dinner, and he gamely tucks into every fresh helping dumped onto his plate.
Costner plays this scene well, with White remaining awkward and out of his element: a chastened demeanor that wins him points even as the elder Diaz gently explains the harsh realities of their lives. Riva lands a few verbal zingers as well, particularly when she wonders aloud why White is at their table, rather than sharing dinner with his own family, as he should be.
Caro handles all such scenes with savvy delicacy, and that’s why her film works so well: It’s not condescending, just as Jim White and his family aren’t. Costner is at his laid-back best in sports films to begin with, but historically his characters have tended to be cocky and at ease with themselves. Costner successfully plays against his own stereotype here, granting White the respectful deference of a man who knows he’s on shaky ground, but genuinely desires to establish mutual trust.
The story’s few moments of racial snobbery are reserved for some of the smug track opponents from other schools, who contemptuously jeer these obviously dirt-poor McFarland kids who (supposedly) have no business competing against their social superiors. White’s pep talks, all delivered marvelously by Costner, crisply address such remarks: The boys from those other schools might be better dressed, but their privileged upbringings make them no match for the hard-working grit and determination imbued, at the most basic level, by the McFarland culture.
You gotta love it.
This story’s outcome may be preordained — it’s a family-friendly Disney drama, after all; what else would you expect? — but getting there is thoroughly enjoyable, even mildly suspenseful at times. And Caro adds a particularly charming cherry atop her finale: an epilogue that re-unites the real-world members of that 1987 cross country squad: most of them accomplished men who faithfully return to help train each new batch of McFarland High School runners.
Goodness, could anything be more inspirational?