McFarland, USA is a Disney production that reminds of the recently opened indie, Spare Parts, in which, like this film, Latino teenagers are challenged by an inspiring teacher to go beyond their perceived destiny and achieve the American dream. Spare Parts is about a scientific competition, whereas McFarland is about a sports competition. Both are based on true events. I preferred the raw, edginess of Spare Parts, but McFarland is still very good.
In both films, the inspiring teacher has a dicey past that each man is trying to overcome, and find themselves in what they think is a temporary position, not having an inkling of the emotional pull of their new communities. Coach White (Costner) has gotten into trouble at several institutions because of a hot temper and not controlling his impulses, and the family has had to move multiple times; McFarland is the lowest yet. White’s wife Julie (Bello) is a model of support, and they have two lovely girls.
White is astute, though, and when he sees three of his students running back and forth to the farm fields to help their parents, he realizes how fast they go, and hatches the idea of coaching them in cross country running. He takes advantage of the fastest runner getting in trouble, and sees to it that his “punishment” will be to recruit his fellow students for the team. As a side, in both these films, the principal is a leader who has insight into teachers’ intentions and what’s best for students. So with everyone involved working together, Coach White has a scrappy team that can be motivated to reach beyond their dreams, and educate him along the way as well.
The road will not be smooth, of course, with family issues, work vs. school pulls, some parental resistance, and community violence needing to be dealt with along the way. But another strong point of the film is in demonstrating how community support and everyone working together can achieve seemingly impossible goals.
Niki Caro, the director, working closely with the writers, presents a realistic picture of the Latino and white cultures mixing together—both rough spots and humorous incidents—and balances well the athletic, emotional, social, and administrative highs and lows. The audience in the screening I attended expressed their appreciation of the film by applauding, chuckling, and cheering throughout.
Kevin Costner was at his best in giving eloquent speeches at just the right time and—more often—mumbling shyly his thanks or sympathy. At one point, though, he has to come through more openly in a very tender moment with a student. The supporting cast of Latinos—many of whom have been in television productions—are really fine, and make the picture sing.
Altogether, McFarland is an entertaining, inspiring, and heartfelt movie.
Running for your life cross country—literally.
Grade: B By Donna R. Copeland