Film Review #2: McFarland, USA (★★★)

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Kevin Costner is best known for his sport movies like “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams” or even “Tin Cup.” He’s tried to repeat those past successes with films like “For Love of the Game” or 2014’s “Draft Day,” but things never clicked. But when paired with Disney, who has mastered the art of inspirational sport stories, Costner has his return to championship form with “McFarland, USA,” a pleasing sports drama that will have you stand up and cheer for these underdogs.

“McFarland, USA” is based on the true story of coach Jim White, who moved from high school to high school until he finally ended up in McFarland, California, a poor town whose residents are mostly fruit pickers. When he notices that some of the boys at the school have natural speed, he decides to form a cross-country team. Coach White soon learns that there are more to these kids, and McFarland, than meets the eye – and it might just be what they need to be champions.

mcfarlandusaYou don’t have to reinvent the wheel when what you’re going for is an inspirational sports movie. Get a ragtag team, through in a pinch of adversity, and a coach who uses tough love until his team wears down his hardy exterior. It worked for films like “Remember the Titans” and “Hoosiers,” and it also works here with “McFarland,” hitting all the right notes to provide a more than satisfying movie going experience.

Niki Caro, write and director of films like “Whale Rider” and “North Country,” did a great job bringing her first sports drama to the big screen. She and her crew, including cinematographers Adam Arkapaw and Terry Stacey, brought a great tone and feel to this California town and made the cross-country races thrilling to watch. Script work from Grant Thompson, Bettina Gilois and Christopher Cleveland is also solid, as the film’s story unfolds just right.

However, that does make the film predictable, but when you’re billing a movie as the inspiring true story of a sports team, you don’t expect them to lose. You’re not going into the film wondering if they will overcome the obstacle, you want to see how the fish out of water bonds with these kids, how the team’s least talented player makes a major contribution, and how the community is uplifted. There’s all that in spades here but with enough individual elements to make it entertaining.

For Kevin Costner, while “McFarland” is easily one of his better roles in some time, it can’t live up to his iconic roles like “Bull Durham.” Costner’s White is a tough coach, but fair, and his best qualities certainly come out the more and more he gets to know these kids and their lives, but he lacks the presence great sport movie characters like Gene Hackman’s coach Dale from “Hoosiers,” Denzel Washington’s coach Boone in “Remember the Titans,” or Costner’s own Crash Davis had that made them idols in the genre.

As for the rest of the cast, the MVP must be given to the actors who make up the town of McFarland. From the local convenient store owner, the leader of a lowrider club, and especially Senora Diaz played by Diana Maria Riva, who is a live wire and brings a nice spark of life to the film, the locals of McFarland offer plenty of humor and heart to get you on board. In comparison, the kids who make up the running team are a little bland save for Thomas (Carlos Pratts) and Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez), but as a whole they’re easy to root for.

Dynasty is a popular word in sports, exemplary examples of consistent success over a long period of time. You can say what Disney has created a dynasty with its sport films as they continue to churn out enjoyable and inspiring stories that are impossible to leave the theater with without a smile. “McFarland, USA” continues that trend.