McFarland is a dump. Located in the arid, cash-strapped San Joaquin Valley of central California, it’s portrayed as the spot where the “American Dream” goes to die -- whether you were born here and no longer think you can achieve it, or you moved here and you are learning how hard it is to attain. McFarland’s also the place where disgraced sports coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) has moved with his supportive wife (Maria Bello) and frustrated daughters, hoping to write yet another chapter in a career that hasn’t gone as planned.
Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), the inspirationally predictable McFarland, USA follows in the sneaker steps tread by Million Dollar Arm, a live-action Disney feature that married a classic American sport with an international flavor. The fact that it’s based on a true story makes the formula easy to swallow – and a mid-credits coda featuring the actual men at the heart of the story was one of many nice touches Caro brings to the family-friendly endeavor.
Casting Kevin Costner as Coach White was another masterstroke, for so many reasons. You see, Caro’s McFarland, USA reverses the traditional culture shock storyline, when a diverse individual – usually from the wrong side of the tracks – gets exposed to a predominantly white (read: improved) lifestyle. This time out, the Whites – and yes, they are “the Whites,” which is a depressing coincidence that isn’t made easier because characters occasionally crack jokes about the irony – are the struggling family who has to assimilate into a Latino culture. “Are we in Mexico?” Jim’s oldest daughter asks as they drive through their new neighborhood for the first time. No, dear. Just a part of America that has altered its culture to accommodate the waves of immigrants that are coming to California.
Because Kevin Costner personifies Americana, though, the actor and the movie do a decent job of selling the act of pulling back the metaphorical blinders on a close-minded, middle-aged individual. White takes a job at the local high school with the intention of coaching football. When that doesn’t pan out, he realizes just how fast the local Mexican athletes can be on the track. He lobbies to create a cross-country track team, gets close with several members of the teenaged school community, and starts to work the magic that’s inherent in these sports fables. The right coach finds the right kids at the right time. You’ve seen it done before, with different ingredients.
To its credit, McFarland, USA does mark an evolution in the inspirational-coach formula, taking recognizable elements but tossing them into a melting spot so that they can simmer. Without question, Caro and her three credited screenwriters tick off the underdog sports clichés like they are mile markers on a marathon route. The Mexican runners from McFarland encounter snooty, rich Northern California kids at their first track meet. All of Costner’s opposing coaches are insensitive racists. And you can bet the house that the overweight kid on Costner’s team isn’t going to come in last during every race.
But, each time the movie starts to slip into condescension, McFarland, USA figures out how to regain its footing and root the story in welcome aspects of culture and universal emotions. Costner keeps a firm grip on the ship’s rudder, establishing fantastic connections with everyone in White’s wheelhouse. When Costner puts his overwhelmed principal in check, it’s always within reason. When Costner inspires his charges, he does it with that characteristic paternal tone that the experienced actor currently possesses. When McFarland almost loses its way, it’s usually Costner who saves us all. Give McFarland, USA your time, especially if you have a teenage athlete in your family. And stay through the credits for that aforementioned footage with the actual men who inspired this sweet story. It’s a fitting tribute at the tail end of a decent movie.