McFarland, USA Review
FORMULAIC AND PREDICTABLE,
BUT STILL HEARTWARMING
Seasoned actor Kevin Costner has done plethora of movies over the years, recognizing his roles from wide variety of film genres, whether good or bad. Costner seems to have a special affinity towards sport themed movies, offering his talent in such features as Field of Dreams (Baseball), Tin Cup, (Golf), and last year’s Draft Day (Football). Now, the sixty year old actor returns once again to the world of sports with Disney’s latest family drama titled McFarland, USA. Does the film race to the finish line or sluggishly comes in last place?
After being fired as a high school football coach for his hotheaded behavior, Jim White (Kevin Costner) is left with scant choice of employment options. Reluctantly, Jim accepts a job opportunity at another high school, packing up his family and moves to McFarland, a small town in rural California that’s largely populated with Latinos. After the initial culture shock and a waning interest in cultivating a football team, Jim sets out to build a high school cross country team after recognizing several students for long-distance running. With the odds stack against them, Jim shapes these scrappy teenagers, through discipline and practice, into a “rising star” reputation in the running community, uniting the team against the more privileged schools of the state, while also dealing with the responsibilities and hardships of family affairs of home life.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As it stands and being based on a true story, McFarland, USA is Disney’s latest entry in its ongoing series of inspirational true life underdog stories that have been adapted into feature films with previous films such as Remember the Titans, Glory Road, Miracle, and Secretariat. These types of films usually follow the recipe standards when crafting a motion picture, blending the truth of reality in overcoming odds (as well as examining equality or social divisions or racial barriers) with a slight dosage of fictionalized events to spice up the narrative. Again, McFarland, USA is no strange this formula, plugging away it’s standardize ingredients to create a movie that, while a heartwarming story of the lives of several individuals, a by-the-numbers underdog tale. Plain and simple.
Director Niki Caro, who directed 2002’s critical acclaim film Whale Rider and the 2005’s North Country, helms this feature, examining the city of McFarland (and its inhabitants there) through the eyes of Jim White. The first act consists of the classic “Fish-out-of-water” scenario with Caro presenting Jim and his family adapting to their foreign surroundings. It then follows the formulaic process of these movies with a bumpy beginning that leads into a rallying middle with a crisis encounter that ultimately rouses the characters towards the climatic ending. Again, it’s nothing new for this genre of filmmaking and would’ve been neat to see a little change up in this feature. Predictably aside, the film still carries the bravado of wholesome story that’s both touching and heartfelt. Caro also does favorable job in showcasing the social divisions of life between “The Haves” and “The Have Nots”, especially in the daily routines of a “picker” (those individuals who pick the abundance fields of crops growing in the vicinity). As a side note, director of photography Adam Arkapaw‘s work on McFarland, USA is great, creating a visual setting for the film as well as Antonio Pinto’s musical score that collaborates both classic inspirational music and Latin flavored music.
As with a lot of these sport themed movies, a great emphasis is placed on the main character (the coach leader/ mentor figure), while balancing the support cast members (the team / family members). Unfortunately, McFarland, USA falters in that category, structuring the narrative around Costner’s character a little too much and short changing some of his cross country students. Sure, some have the spotlight (and poignant ones at that), but the film can’t find its harmonious focus balance between the teacher and students. With that mentioned, the film also runs a little too long, clocking in a little bit over two hours long, and deals with numerous pacing problems, especially during the film’s second act.
The two primary actors that shine the best is, of course, Kevin Costner as the gruff teacher / coach Jim White, but more surprisingly in Carlos Pratts as the wayward de facto team captain of seven cross country boys Thomas Vallies. As I stated above, Costner is an old pro at this, bringing gravitas to the movie and genuine likeability to his no nonsense charisma in Jim White. Pratts’s performance is effectively good, striking the right tone (thematically) in Thomas with enough strength and vulnerable to his character. The other students on the team that include characters of Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran), Jose Cardenas (Johnny Ortiz), Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar), David Diaz (Rafael Martinez), Damacio Diaz (Michael Aguero), and Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez) give solid performances, but are neither fleshed out enough or not given enough screen time beyond a couple of impressionable scenes here and there (again the focusing more on Costner’s White).
In minor / supporting roles is Jim’s family with Maria Bello as his wife Cheryl, Morgan Saylor as his eldest daughter Julie, and Elsie Fisher as his youngest daughter Jamie. Other notable performances in this category include Valente Rodriguez as McFarland’s high school principal Camillo and Diana Maria Riva as the efficient mother to the Diaz boys. While generally supporting or stock characters, each actor and actress listed above gets the job done, handling their respective roles well.
Viewers will find that there is nothing new or surprising when it comes to watching McFarland, USA. Its a tried and true underdog sports film that treads into an all too familiarity territory and runs an inconsistent gambit in its own focus and narrative pacing. Despite its shortcomings, the film does find its strides in its heartfelt story and terrific performance from Costner and several of his supporting cast members. All in all, while it might not have the tense and palpable remembrance of similar films like Remember the Titans, McFarland, USA is still a touching and wholesome feel good movie. It warrants a glance in theaters for fans of these types of movies, while, for others, makes s a prime candidate to be viewed as a suitable family rental.