Movie Review - McFarland, USA

Carlos Pratts (left) and Kevin Costner
in 'McFarland, USA'
This Disney film is very, very familiar. It feels like an old friend, or like deja vu, and for two reasons. It's Kevin Costner in an inspirational sports film of which Costner has done several. It's also a story about a white person who helps impoverished minorities rise to prominence of which there are tons. Of the recent movies in that vein, I think this film is better than Million Dollar Arm (2014) and The Blind Side (2009), and mainly because it gives more agency to the so-called impoverished minorities, not a lot more, but enough. What redeems these movies is that they're based on real-life people and events. It seems like most sports films are docudramas, but, of the recent ones, none are better than the actual documentary Undefeated (2012), which won the Oscar.

Kevin Costner stars as Jim White, a high school football coach who loses his job in Boise, Idaho, in August 1987 due to him losing his temper. This aspect of his life, his possible anger management issues, is never fully developed or addressed after Jim gets his next job. The only job he can get is in McFarland, California, an impoverished and mostly Hispanic community. Jim moves his family, including his wife, played by Maria Bello, and his two daughters Julie, played by Morgan Sayler (Homeland), and Jaime into the middle of the impoverished neighborhood.

The film is therefore about Jim and his family having to adjust to the neighborhood and fit in, as well as about his eventual job of coaching a group of Mexican teenage boys. Jim starts out as the life sciences and physical education teacher, but he's as lackadaisical about teaching P.E. as the boys are to be there. Despite the lethargy or indifference, Jim recognizes that several of the boys are amazing runners and could be cross-country stars.

There are seven, Mexican boys and opposite Jim and his family, there are perhaps too many characters to delve. Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, or director Niki Caro (Whale Rider and North Country) clearly favor Jim and his family, which at times is purposeful because the film wants the boys and the Mexican culture to be mysterious in order to build tension and even terror later. Most of the time, we as Jim are welcomed warmly into the homes and lives of the boys. It just doesn't go far enough.

Carlos Pratts plays Thomas Valles, the eldest and best runner of the boys. There are three brothers. Rafael Martinez plays David Diaz. Michael Aguero plays Damacio Diaz and Ramiro Rodriguez plays Danny Diaz, the overweight one who is regarded as the track team's anchor and not in a derogatory way. Hector Duran plays Johnny Sameniego, a former football player who is tapped by Jim to help recruit the others. Unfortunately, the other team members aren't accustomed to the audience like these five.

Thomas Valles takes center stage and his struggle and frustration is well developed and explored. Through him and the Diaz brothers, we see the plight of Mexican field workers. It's not as tangential as in C.O.G., but at least that film immerses us more into the depth of the field work. It's of course way less than Cesar Chavez (2014), but the plight of the field workers was the entire focus there.

The bigotry or discrimination of Latinos like assuming someone is in a gang or is a thug based on how they look or dress is also explored. The film dispels those bigotries. It also dispels bigotries from within the Latino community to some small degree, not as well as something like La Mission or Gun Hill Road. This film does remind me of Sunset Park (1996), which is about teenage, African-American basketball players in the inner-city, but again the teenage boys in that film are more developed and characterized. You know them better than you know the boys here.

Caro is able to make the countless scenes of the boys running into thrilling or engaging sequences. All the performances are earnest and genuine. Costner is very good as well.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.


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