McFarland, USA (2015)

McFarland, USA (2015)
  • Time: 128 min
  • Genre: Drama | Sport
  • Director: Niki Caro
  • Cast: Morgan Saylor, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez


Set in the 1980s and inspired by actual events, the inspirational Disney sports drama McFarland stars Kevin Costner as a California track coach determined to shape a predominately Hispanic team into state champions.


  • I’ve never been a huge fan of Disney sports movies. For every Invincible, there’s a Herbie Fully Loaded. For every Remember the Titans, there’s a Snow Buddies. It’s all sugar coated, gerrymander stuff that doesn’t quite deliver an emotional wallop. Enter McFarland, USA, the type of Disney inducement that sort of breaks the mold. Now granted, I wouldn’t rank it as one of the best of its genre. It doesn’t grab you by the lapels and make you get all teary-eyed like Hoosiers and Rudy (two of my all-time favorites). I will say however that next to last year’s Million Dollar Arm, this 2015 release is probably the best sports flick to come out of Walt Disney Pictures, a production company that’s been around before films even had the luxury of sound (we’re talking over eighty years ago to be exact).

    Directed by Niki Caro who oversaw the critically acclaimed Whale Rider (2002), McFarland, USA is based on a freshening true story that’s long overdue. As you watch the events depicted via the year 1987, you wonder why it took so long for things to get greenlighted. Could it be the fear that a movie about cross country running might come across as boring or trivial? Maybe. Does it really matter at this point? Not so much. Critics have embraced it. Audiences seem to be eating it up. So to quote a song lyric from the late, great Jim Morrison, “nothing left to do but run, run, run, let’s run.”

    Anyway, the story begins with real life football coach Jim White (played by Kevin Costner). The film’s opening scene which is its weakest asset, shows him getting into a confrontation with his snobbish quarterback/captain. He argues with him, throws a cleat at his locker, said jock gets a cut on the face, and Jimbo gets fired from his job. Along with his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello in a side role that she could play in her sleep) and his two daughters, White moves from Boise, Idaho to one of the poorest towns in America being McFarland, California. He’s there to take a second rate job (the only job he could get) as an assistant football coach. After yet again being asked to step down, he’s handcuffed to just being a physical education teacher. It’s within this realm that he learns about how fast his students can run. This gives Jim an idea: he’s gonna convince the principal to back the first cross country team in the history of McFarland High. White will be the coach and all he has to do is find seven male runners. This sparks a plethora of comradery, friendship, father figure interludes, and determination between Costner’s White and his underprivileged speed demons. As a team, they start to make waves at various running meets and eventually make it to the California state championships. “McFarland’s” main conflict therefore, is the question of whether or not Jim is trying to boost his resume. He could get offered another job in a nicer town that’s less poverty-stricken. He also could stay in McFarland seeing that him and his family become so attached to a community of hard working pickers with not so bright futures.

    Now McFarland, USA is a conventional yet well filmed sports drama. With a little heart, a little tug, and a little shine courtesy of Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, it gets the job done. The running scenes are well shot with the Southwest California landscape glistening in the background. It’s authenticity is paramount showcasing unknown, young cast members (from what I read, actual students from McFarland High School as well) and the mighty Kevin Costner whose old world weariness, scruffy demeanor, and acting as veritable comfort food deem him perfect for the role of Jim White.

    Yeah the outcome might be a little predictable, the racial stereotyping of cultural differences (between Americans and Hispanics) overwhelms key scenes, “McFarland” is sometimes, forcefully mean spirited, and the opening sequence of Costner’s White as volatile, coaching henchman seems totally undernourished (not to mention unconvincing). However, what’s on screen is to a degree, admirable family fare (PG style). And Costner, being so synonymous with sports bids, can faithfully add this one to his greatest hits collection (alongside Field of Dreams, Draft Day, and Tin Cup).

    In conclusion, this is feel good, fast food stuff that’s not in any sense, preheated. McFarland, USA is a place to go to in your mind, a movie to see. Rating: 3 enduring stars.

    Of note: I loved the final credits montage. It showcases the real life runners, their real life coach, and the current state of the actual McFarland High School. It also explains in worded titles, what they are up to in their lives (roughly twenty-eight years later). It’s indeed heartwarming and very well done.

  • When McFarland, USA begins, football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) has been fired from his job as a result of his short temper. He moves his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie White) to the titular town, a small agricultural community with a predominantly Mexican-American population. “This place is a dump,” Julie declares, looking around their nondescript home dominated by a mural of a Mexican woman offering bounty. Dinner at a local restaurant finds them eating tacos instead of their preferred burgers, and a tense encounter with a group of possible gang members frustrates Jim. His wife reminds him they have no choice but to stay and make it work.

    Jim is not exactly thrilled with his new position as assistant football coach, nor does he find it amusing when the insolent teens refer to him by his last name or “Blanco.” Jim is biding his time – in his mind, McFarland is a purgatorial pit stop until a better opportunity comes along. Then a curious thing happens. He notices how fast his students run – picking crops in the unrelenting heat and loading up on beans and rice makes them ideal cross-country runners. Though he has no experience in coaching a cross-country team, Jim goes about convincing the doubtful principal and the even more skeptical boys to form a team. Naturally, they are underdogs. Naturally – this is a based on a true story Disney sports film after all – they are bound to be triumphant.

    It is all too easy to roll one’s eyes at the predictability of this particular genre. Not to mention the condescension of having yet another white figure swoop in and better the lives of underprivileged minorities. Yet those charges gain very little traction here. Director Niki Caro and screenwriters Grant Thompson, Christopher Cleveland, and Bettina Gilois do remarkably mindful work. Jim is not depicted as the great white hope – he is a man who has his share of issues, not least of which is anger management. He can be tremendously selfish – he’s more concerned that his best runner may have just walked off the team than letting his daughter down on her birthday.

    The boys, for their part, are not bowled over by Jim. Running isn’t exactly putting food on the table. As one of the boys’ fathers tells Jim, “Each hour they train is one less hour they work.” That is lost money. Jim experiences the manual labour firsthand when he joins the boys one morning, and is shocked to learn that they are paid by the field, not by the hour. This care and attention in delving into the boys’ lives and the community may result in a film that is a tad overlong, but it also results in a richness that renders the boys’ victories more emotionally impactful.

    Costner does sterling work here, emitting a quiet command and well-worn elegance. He displays generosity with his young co-stars, most of whom are newcomers discovered in the area and all of whom deliver natural and engaging performances. The film ends with the real Jim White and the members of his original running team alongside the next generation of cross-country runners. It is a rousing coda to a heartfelt, tear-inducing, and stirring film.

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