Standard-issue “inspirational sports movie” still manages to inspire
Directed by Niki Caro
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor
The words “based on the inspirational true-life story” pop up on movie posters at least three or four times a year—most often over images of an anonymous yet determined high school football player crouched down in the rain under the harsh glare of a stadium light. Virtually without exception, you know what you’re getting yourself into when you watch one of these films: Small-town, ragtag band of losers picks itself up with the help of a constructively critical coach to win the big championship. When you get right down to it, the “based-on-a-true story sports movie” might just be the most formulaic genre Hollywood has to offer. Of course that doesn’t stop audiences from flocking to these films. Rudy, Hoosiers, Miracle, Cinderella Man, The Rookie, Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, Invincible, We Are Marshall, When the Game Stands Tall, Million Dollar Arm: The list is just about endless.
Broadly speaking, the Disney-produced sporting drama McFarland, USA fits in perfectly with all those other films. It’s based on a true story. It hits all the expected story beats. It’s inspirational and tear-jerky. And it stars Kevin Costner, who has more sports movies on his résumé than just about any other actor (Draft Day, For Love of the Game, Tin Cup, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, American Flyers). But that’s not to say this film doesn’t occasionally work very well for what it is.
It’s based on the story of coach Jim White (Costner, of course), whose job-hopping leads him to a dirtwater town in California populated almost entirely by Latino farm workers. When we first meet White, he’s teaching football in Texas, but a losing team and a hotheaded locker room reaction leave him with yet another job termination. This compact, pre-credit sequence is actually a masterful little bit of acting, directing and editing. The look on Costner’s face at the end of it says volumes. Director Niki Caro and her team of writers don’t need to drive home the point with dialogue or narration. We know just about all we need to know about Jim White in a few short minutes: passionate, temperamental and very often his own worst enemy.
It’s nice of the script to steer clear of the most egregious clichés. Inspirational as he is to his team, White isn’t the perfect coach. He screws up, gets mad and quite honestly doesn’t know much about cross-country. The film is as much about his redemption as his team’s.
The tiny farming community of McFarland, Calif., would seem to be a total dead-end prospect. It certainly looks that way to White’s wife (Maria Bello) and daughters (Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher) when they first arrive. A tiny house with a dirt yard, an underfunded school and a main street with nary an English sign in view. At first White seems resolved to serve out his ignominious exile, assistant coaching the high school football team and teaching basic biology to a bunch of ESL students. But the guy cares too much to sit on the sidelines for long. Clearly, the football team sucks. But some of these kids have potential. Most of them get up at 4:30 every morning and pick vegetables with their parents before even showing up to class. Recognizing their inherent stamina, White starts recruiting a few of the boys for a cross-country running team.
Of course our hero coach runs into all the usual stumbling blocks: lack of funding, a lingering doubt from conservative parents and a community that has no idea what the hell he’s trying to do. Eventually, however, our main man starts to make some converts. The film’s setting is key. Up until Coach White’s arrival, most of these young Latino kids never dared to dream about anything other than picking vegetables for the rest of their lives. But White has actually found something they’re good at. And with maximum effort, some of them might even spin it into a free ride to college—something that’s all but unheard of in McFarland.
It’s nice of the script to steer clear of the most egregious clichés. Inspirational as he is to his team, White isn’t the perfect coach. He screws up, gets mad and quite honestly doesn’t know much about cross-country. The film is as much about his redemption as his team’s. The scope of the film is also kept appropriately small scale. Cross-country is not football. It doesn’t have packed stadiums full of screaming fans. Three or four children racing out into the street to hold up a banner as the team bus passes by counts as a major emotional victory here.
Another bonus to the production is director Niki Caro, the New Zealand woman who directed the gritty Maori drama Whale Rider (as well as Charlize Theron’s shot-in-New-Mexico mining drama North Country). Clearly, Caro has an affinity for working-class people. That shows through here in the sympathy and understanding she bestows on the hardscrabble people of McFarland. For the most part, though, McFarland, USA isn’t exactly a challenge to Caro’s directing abilities. Emotionally affecting and well-made as it is in parts, it’s still a paint-by-numbers assignment.
By the time McFarland, USA arrives at its now-requisite credit sequence featuring footage of the actual people who inspired the film, you might be tempted to dismiss the whole thing as yet another piece of formulaic Hollywood claptrap—that is if you can keep the tears from forming at the corners of your eyes long enough.