“McFarland, USA” tells a heartwarming story about underdogs who, to the surprise of everyone, including themselves, establish a sports dynasty.
The all-Latino cross-country Cougar teammates at McFarland High School, residents of California’s farm-heavy Central Valley, aren’t the story’s only underdogs. Their coach, Jim White, a non-Latino newcomer to the McFarland community, is, in the eyes of many, a loser, too.
Football coach White, after being too tough on his team at a previous high school in a far more prosperous place than McFarland, accepts a teaching position and assistant coaching job at McFarland High School.
The school is located in a poor Latino community. The students spend long hours with their parents picking cotton, sugar beets, almonds, citrus and grapes in the area’s vast produce fields. White quickly learns that the young people of McFarland see nothing but a hardscrabble future for themselves, offering no opportunity to advance up the economic ladder.
Kevin Costner stars as White, an embittered man who’s struggling to support his wife and two daughters. Like his new students in McFarland, he’s beaten down, carries a chip on his shoulder, is pessimistic about the future.
Veteran actor Costner, much like his performance in the recent “Black or White,” plays another character who must adjust to changing circumstances, reinvent himself to survive. The climb upward from despair for Coach White isn’t easy. Costner gives White’s lessons learned late genuine weight.
New Zealander Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “North Country”) directs the late 1980s-set “McFarland, USA,” a tightly focused drama based on the true story of White and his out-of-left-field cross-country runners.
The ethnicity of White’s athletes surprises their competitors but, once the efficiently paced story starts rolling, there are no big surprises in “McFarland, USA.” It’s a feel-good movie, plain and simple. Nonetheless, the real challenges White and his team face pull the viewer along for the ride.
In a dramatic instance of culture shock, White, his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello in a one-dimensional role as supportive spouse and mother), their disapproving teen daughter, Julie (Morgan Saylor), and the family’s youngest child, little sister Jamie (Elsie Fisher), move from a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood to a poor Mexican-American community. A few notches down from what the Whites are accustomed to, but the troublemaking Coach White, or at least he’s perceived to be a troublemaker, has no other options left.
Costner’s coach, a man who’ll do what he thinks is right despite the consequences, is quickly relieved of his assistant football coaching duties at McFarland. Fortunately, the sympathetic Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) lets him keep his teaching job.
White’s road to reinvention comes to him almost as a vision. He sees McFarland students running all over the community, including the produce fields. Well, they certainly can’t afford cars.
Although White isn’t a track coach, he sees great potential for a cross-country team at McFarland High. Convincing the young men he wants for the team to join is an uphill battle. There’s make-it or break-it drama in his recruiting efforts, drama of the kind that reveals the characters of the young men and White. Also the challenges they all face in life, not to mention cross-country races against better-supported and -trained teams throughout California.
“McFarland, USA,” its leading man Costner and the seven novice actors who play the story’s cross-country team run their feel-good story to the finish line in inspirational style.