Disney California Adventure this afternoon, on the way home I stopped by a movie theater to catch Disney's newest film in the inspirational sports genre, MCFARLAND, USA (2015).
Kevin Costner, one of my favorite actors, stars in this fact-based film as Jim White, a high school football coach who in the late '80s finds himself having to accept a job and move his family to what seems to be the middle of nowhere -- McFarland, California, to be exact.
A poor agricultural town with a largely Hispanic population, McFarland is a far different place than the White family are used to, to the extent that when youngest daughter Jamie (Elsie Fisher) wakes up from a nap, she looks out the car window and asks "Are we in Mexico?"
Working as assistant football coach at McFarland High doesn't go so well, but Coach White soon notices something several of the students excel at -- running. He decides to start up a cross-country team, but learns that if the program is going to succeed, he needs to find a way to win over the boys' parents, not to mention set practice times late enough not to clash with the boys' work in the fields before and after school.
Gradually the Whites make friends in the community and begin to feel at home, and meanwhile the new McFarland cross-country team starts racking up some unexpected results at competitions.
What makes a "formula" film like this interesting is how the filmmakers work within the conventions of the genre, and MCFARLAND, USA deserves major kudos in this regard. It presents a fairly unique view of life in a poor town which feels authentic, from the run-down grocery store to the taco restaurant to the neighbor lady who presents Coach White with a chicken as a housewarming gift. Small touches such as the coach riding his daughter's pink bike alongside his runners also feel very real.
The White family's very gradual absorption into the community makes compelling viewing, building to a touching sequence when new friends help throw a quinceanera for daughter Julie's (Morgan Saylor) 15th birthday.
Although McFARLAND, USA covers some of the same territory as last month's SPARE PARTS (2015), about high schools in struggling Hispanic immigrant communities, the tone of MCFARLAND, USA was far less political, focusing on bridging the cultural divide, building community, and the value of hard work. The film's postscript, detailing how life turned out for the boys depicted in the film, is truly inspirational.
The film feels a touch like the TV series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, although Coach White's wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) is not as well developed a character. That said, the film tells a lot of story, and Bello does well within the confines of her role.
The cast also includes Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Michael Aguero, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Martha Higareda, and Valente Rodriguez. Diana Maria Riva is terrific as the mother of three boys on the team, who rousts them out of bunkbeds at the crack of dawn.
MCFARLAND, USA was directed by Niki Caro. It runs 129 minutes.
The trailer is at IMDb.
Leonard Maltin ("deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience"), Kenneth Turan in the L.A. Times, Jocelyn Noveck in the Post Star, and Scott Tobias for The Dissolve.
Reviews of 2014 Kevin Costner films: JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014), 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014), and DRAFT DAY (2014).
McFARLAND, USA, is recommended viewing.