McFarland, USA | Review
Personal Best: Caro Returns to Studio Filmmaking with Feel-Good Adaptation
It’s been a while since we’ve heard anything from New Zealand director Niki Caro, who made headlines with her 2002 sophomore film, Whale Rider, before making her Hollywood debut with 2005’s North Country. After the dismal reception of her 2009 effort, A Heavenly Vintage (aka The Vinter’s Luck), she’s helmed, of all things, a Disney film, McFarland, USA. Kevin Costner, once the penultimate star of mainstream, sports themed cinema, finds himself as the figure responsible for fostering athletic careers, moving from Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day to late 1980’s cross-country coach here. Caro’s film is the second ‘based on a true story’ minority flavored studio flick this year, following Sean McNamara’s Spare Parts, which also relates the travails of a group of Hispanic students overcoming odds to succeed in an organized school events. Beat by methodical beat, the formulaic screenplay by Christopher Cleveland, Grant Thompson, and Bettina Gilois doesn’t work any kind of narrative miracles, but there are a handful of nice touches, thanks mostly to its willingness to bluntly address white privilege, and a surprisingly emotive performance from Costner.
In 1987 Southern California, football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) is forced to take a lowly assistant coach position in McFarland, California, a rural area made up mostly of Hispanic population. The families there are made up of produce pickers, with children growing up either to join their relatives in the fields or end up leading a life of crime. Whatever the case, high school diplomas are rarely part of their trajectory. White’s wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two daughters (Morgan Saylor & Elsie Fisher) are in for a rude awakening as this isn’t the kind of life they’re accustomed to. Immediately at odds with the football coach, Jim happens to notice that several male students are expert runners, and so he assembles a team of seven youths. And, since we all know this is based on a true story, you can imagine the kind of glory Jim White leads them to.
McFarland, USA is your general run-of-the-mill sports themed underdog story. Nearly every major sport has had its heyday in this familiar wringer, with Disney’s recent baseball in India flick Million Dollar Arm still fresh in our memories. What’s most refreshing about Arm and Spare Parts, despite their mediocre assemblage, is the long hard road to not only the portrayal of non-white characters, but of an actual focus on and embrace (in a very liberal sense of the word) of their culture. While McNamara guided us with George Lopez, Caro’s period piece reverts to the familiarity of the white usher, here with a family that has the perfect surname. They’re initially an easily identifiable set of middle-class milquetoast, as evidenced by an awkwardly staged scene that finds the Whites dining at their first Mexican restaurant in McFarland, where Costner’s dowdy patriarch asks ignorantly if burgers are served. But then, this is before Chipotle introduced the delights of Hispanic themed food en masse, something we have to remember upon seeing their baffled expressions when they’re offered carne asada and barbacoa.
The Whites become acclimated quite quickly, with their elder daughter developing a crush on her father’s star runner, played by Carlos Pratts. He’s one of several vibrant supporting players that lends McFarland, USA a kind of hard won sentimentality. Several of his peers are also memorable, particularly newcomers like Sergio Avelar and Hector Duran. Caro pays less attention to White’s family, which is perfectly fine, but Maria Bello seems wasted as an ultra-supportive housewife. Early on in the film, she tasks her incredibly busy, stressed out, and preoccupied husband with picking up a birthday cake after work. This causes a dramatic impact that ripples into other aspects of the narrative, yet we’re never led to understand why she wouldn’t have gotten the cake herself. Details like these make the liberties taken in McFarland, USA seem way too evident. But even when we’re distracted by these imperfections, Caro elicits some nicely observed moments between Costner and his team.
A choked up monologue preceding the grand finale is not only eloquent, but effectively pays tribute to the extra efforts disenfranchised groups are forced to make in comparison to privileged peers. Sure, at the end of the day, it may be just another sports drama, replete with generic dramatic shifts and cutesy comic relief, but Caro manages to sail us through a tale that ends with an emotional, even inspirational triumph. Unfortunately, this means down-playing some of the more cruel realities of racism and domestic abuse issues.