Movie Review/Movies/My Culture

Catholic Movie Reviews: McFarland, USA

PG

MPAA Rating

Life Teen Rating

Is It Cool?: Excellence in Filmmaking

If McFarland, USA is a paint-by-numbers sports movie, its colors are vibrant and its mosaic is intricate. It transcends the sum of its stock parts into what all good sport movies aim to be—inspirational. And it has the added draw of being based on a true story that is good enough to make one wonder why it took nearly 28 years to tell it on the big screen.

Jim White (a reliably likeable Kevin Costner) is a football coach whose hot temper gets him fired and leaves him with little choice but to uproot his family to Nowheresville (McFarland) where its one high school desperately needs a combination football coach, PE teacher, and life sciences teacher. Coach White soon discovers that, although the local boys have little talent for football, they have a natural propensity to run as their primary mode of transportation. He decides to start the school’s first cross-country team—a sport much reserved for affluent suburban schools.

While the plot revolves around the budding success of the team, the heart of the film smartly revolves around the culture clash between the White family (a convenient coincidence) and the Mexican farming community that encompasses McFarland’s identity. Coach White (or “Blanco” as the kids call him) views the town as a stopover—just a means to a better end for him and his family. His students and neighbors sense his initial antipathy and respond with understandable coldness. If you sense where this is going, rest assured the ride is well worth it. I may or may not have teared up three times by the end of it.

Kevin Costner does his best Kevin Costner thing. He’s nearly always the same guy in every movie, but the role of Coach White takes advantage of all his strengths at once. Maria Bello is reliably excellent as Mrs. White. And the cast is strong all around. It’s really easy to love the kids. And there is a surprisingly resonant side story involving Coach White’s relationship with his teenage daughter.

Let’s face it, cross-country running isn’t the most spectacular spectator sport out there. But you’ll easily forget that fact watching McFarland, USA thanks firstly to your investment in the characters, and secondly because the cinematography and editing is first-rate. Long-distance running couldn’t be more visually stimulating without imposing an obtrusive style by a director trying to make a statement. Thank goodness Niki Caro (Whale Rider and North Country) is not that director.

The running time is a little long for its genre, but the film never outstays its welcome. There are plenty of good-natured laughs to go around that maximize the fish-out-of water premise without resorting to caricatures. Like all good sports movies, the human drama outshines the sports drama and the key moments are earned.

 

What’s it Saying?: Message of the Movie

The most poignant message is about empathy. There is real compassion for each character and their respective situations that undergirds the drama. Nobody feels like a cheap tool to advance the plot or proselytize a viewpoint. By providing an avenue for real success, Coach White offers his athletes a way out of the poverty cycle. But it is his athletes who inspire him with their incredible work ethic and family-first mentality.

There are also glimpses of faith playing a real role in the athletes’ lives as they are seen making the sign of the cross and offering prayers of thanksgiving.

On the sports side, it’s safe to echo the film’s tag line that “champions can come from anywhere.”

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Morality in the Movie

There are fleeting glimpses of domestic violence, implied gang violence (and the bloody aftermath), mild adult language, and scene where suicide is contemplated.

But everything feels story appropriate and handled with tasteful discretion. It is safe to say that this is a refreshingly family-friendly film—thankfully devoid of sexual content and profanity.

That's Right. I Said It: Reviewer Comments

Kevin Costner has been in EVERYTHING recently. I’m happy to see a career revival.

Valente Rodriguez as Principal Camillo is one of the best side characters I’ve seen in a while.

I am so grateful that I’m not a “picker” for a living but also feel like a total weakling and complainer after seeing what these kids endure daily.

It really feels like 1987 but the period styles never draw too much attention to themselves. Bravo production designer!

California is made to look so beautiful I just might have to move back.

I almost forgot what good movies are supposed to feel like—satisfying!

About the Author

Ryan O'Connell

After a hard day of work, I look forward to a little exercise, some blues guitar, and a moving-picture creation by my ex-employer and fickle lover, Hollywood. I’m also a fan of basketball, sketch comedy, and vigorously defending my beliefs using this academic gimmick called “truth.” God has blessed me with the most loyal friends a guy could ask for, and a disturbing inability to not laugh at stupid jokes.

Want to write for Life Teen? Click Here to learn more.