Film Review: McFarland, USA (★★★)

mcfarland_usaI’m surprised that it took this long for Disney to wrangle Kevin Costner for one of their inspirational sports movies. Costner is the preeminent sports movie star, so putting him into the studio’s tried and true formula is a recipe for success. As such, it shouldn’t be a shock that McFarland, USA is quality entertainment, though it’s perhaps a pleasant surprise just how effective it is. This is a more inspiring and lower key movie than you’d expect, one that really turns Cross Country into a sport that makes your pulse pound at times. McFarland, USA manages to be yet another winner for the Mouse. Director Niko Caro keeps things moving nicely, preventing you from making any jokes about how long a movie about running is (it’s a tad too long at basically two hours and ten minutes, so I’ll concede that), though a lot of the credit here goes to Costner. He’s the MVP here (playing a coach for the first time, continuing his sports flick evolution from the field to the sidelines, which he began by playing a General Manager last year in Draft Day), but everyone does their part. If you’re a Disney sports movie fan, you’re in for a treat. Honestly, even if those films aren’t your thing, this could still win you over. McFarland, USA has a lot going in its favor and is well worth checking out. Especially for February, it’s pretty high quality stuff. When you see it for yourself, you’ll understand.

Based on a true story, this film tells the tale of the small California town of McFarland, which is almost all Hispanic. One of the nation’s poorest cities, Jim White (Costner) arrives because it’s basically the end of the line for him. Initially coaching football, he notices that the students at McFarland High School are incredibly good runners, having built up leg strength and endurance working in the fields with their parents. Jim then pitches a Cross Country running team to the Principal and sets out to recruit a group to join. They’re initially skeptical of him, but slowly he begins to win them over and they become quick contenders for the state championship. At the same time as Jim looks to parlay this into a better job, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) as well as daughters Jamie (Elsie Fisher) and particularly teenaged Julie (Morgan Saylor) begin to integrate within the community and find a place to call home. It does all culminate in a race, but everything is done with such a nice touch that you never feel any cliches being forced on you. The end of the film will make you want to stand up and cheer, trust me.

vlcsnap-2014-12-23-11h39m25s130-1419363727302If Kevin Costner is slightly better in the recent Black or White, he’s still excellent here. Between his interactions with his team, his interplay with his family, and even just the way he carries himself, Costner is turning in very strong work. This next phase of his career really does suit him well. Maria Bello is sadly all but wasted, which is a shame. She has one strong scene, but a lot of the time she’s almost relegated to the sidelines. Morgan Saylor isn’t given much to do, but she’s solid enough. The other cast members worth noting are the ones who play the team. They consist of Carlos Pratts as the best runner on the team, as well as Sergio Avelar, Rafael Martinez, Johnny Ortiz, and Ramino Rodriguez, among others. They really feel like real teenagers, so that’s a huge success. The rest of the supporting cast includes the aforementioned Elsie Fisher, plus folks like Omar Leyva, Diana Maria Riva, and Valente Rodriguez, to name a few, but they’re strictly in the background. Costner is the one who gets to stand out.

Niki Caro is an underrated director, someone who consistently crafts work that’s better than you expect. She really captures the look and feel of a poor California town, giving McFarland an easily identifiable power. Caro had a solid script from Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson, but without her touch, this could have been an only decent “beating the odds” sports story. Caro takes what Cleveland, Gilois, and Thompson put on the page and elevates it a bit. Caro doesn’t get enough notice as a top tier female filmmaker, but hopefully that’s going to change now. Who knows, maybe she’ll wind up in contention for the Wonder Woman movie? I bet she’d knock it out of the park.

Without any question, McFarland, USA is a genre work, but it just works better than you’d initially think. You very well might shed a tear when all is said and done. Especially if you’re a Costner fan (particularly his sports outings), this is one that you really shouldn’t miss. You’ll be surprised, that’s for sure. Don’t miss McFarland, USA…it’s a real winner.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!