Directed by: Niki Caro
Premise: A white high school teacher (Kevin Costner) relocates to a small impoverished town that is mostly populated by Mexican immigrants. Upon discovering that some of the local boys are impressive runners he recruits them for a high school cross country team.
What Works: Walt Disney Pictures has an entire sub-library of sports and diversity titles including Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans, and Glory Road. These films are typically about a gruff but well-meaning coach who takes on a group of underdogs, usually nonwhite athletes in a traditionally white sport, and leads them to defy the odds and become champions. Disney does these inspirational sports films pretty well and McFarland, USA is another satisfactory entry. Kevin Costner is cast as the coach and he gives a steady if unremarkable performance. The movie is primarily his story as the white male who is forced to relocate from a position at a wealthy upper class suburban community to a new high school in a working class immigrant town. As told from the coach’s point of view, Costner’s character comes to realize the challenges of these young men’s lives, as they balance school work, cross country practice, and laboring in the field with their families. This could become terribly condescending but Costner and director Niki Carro pitch it just right so that McFarland, USA is about people from different cultures achieving mutual understanding. Among the cast of athletes, the most notable performance is provided by Carlos Pratts. He stands out among the rest of the cast and the film offers him several emotional beats in which he is torn between the desire for a better life and his sense of duty toward his family.
What Doesn’t: Although actors Kevin Costner and Carlos Pratts distinguish themselves, the filmmakers mishandle the rest of the core cast. Usually in a movie like this each of the team members is given a particular character slot. In McFarland, USA, Pratts is cast as the handsome would-be champion with a troubled home life and Ramiro Rodriguez plays the fat kid who becomes an unlikely athlete but the rest of the runners are indistinguishable from each other. Unlike Million Dollar Arm, Disney’s 2014 iteration of the diversity and sports formula, the runners of McFarland, USA aren’t distinguished as individual characters and they tend to blend together. Furthermore, the story does not give these characters personal subplots in which their achievements on the field have some greater meaning. The failure to characterize the players or give them substantive problems to solve prevents the audience from making an emotional investment in the story. McFarland, USA has some serious dramatic problems. There are several issues that are introduced—one player’s father is abusive and another supporting character attempts to distance himself from his gangbanger past—but these story kernels are not given proper screen time. The narrative lacks tension because everything feels inevitable. At no point do the filmmakers create the impression that the cross country runners might fail. In an attempt to concoct some emotional resonance with the viewers, the filmmakers depict a lot of the cross country competition as racist or classist. While racism is certainly a very real part of American life, the way it’s presented in McFarland, USA is forced and obtuse and it’s used in a cheap way, very much like the depiction of racism in The Blind Side. This is a film about the immigrant experience and for the most part the filmmakers get their point across but in the ending they lay it on pretty thick, especially the final meet which is preceded by an especially sentimental rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” These moments come across as forced because there is very little leading up to them.
Bottom Line: McFarland, USA is an average sports film. It suffers from a lot of storytelling problems and the movie isn’t nearly as rousing as Disney’s other sports dramas but it does the job just well enough to be acceptable.
Episode: #531 (March 1, 2015)