Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
McFarland, USA has more heart and care for its Hispanic lead characters than expected, even if the story is told through the lens of a white family man coming to terms with his new life. Like many Disney efforts of late (including last year’s Million Dollar Arm), the film opts for safe notions of fish-out-of-water ideas rather than investing fully in the culture it’s attempting to showcase. For every sincere moment that emerges in McFarland, a grating moment of stereotypical insensitivity dominates the next. There’s no definitive storytelling balance between the Hispanic runners and the White family (yes, jokes are made about his name being White, including the worthy language substitute of “Blanco”), particularly as the cultural divide seems to swing rapidly without much build. The narrative is based on a true story, an all too familiar reminder of how calculated the emotional moments in the film are. Does that explain, though, the bouts of gang violence and entirely unnecessary conflict that is introduced in the film’s final half hour? Despite this string of complaints, though, the film is affecting and nuanced in its depiction of actual Hispanic culture, and Kevin Costner is phenomenal as always.
The film opens in 1987, with Jim White (Kevin Costner) talking with a frustrated football team that has given up the most points in their high school’s history. One of his captains, and the only senior on the team, makes a joke of the moment, causing Jim to react unfortunately and lead to his termination. Jim has to move his family from Boise to McFarland, California, one of the poorest cities in the nation. It’s a town that looks like it belongs in southern Arizona or right past the border of Mexico; signage, food, and culture scream “Mexico!,” a remark that Jim’s daughter makes with the cultural acceptance of a hazelnut. Jim fears for his family’s life upon seeing a group of car enthusiasts that are mistaken for “gangbangers,” as the driver so aptly puts it. His experience at his new job is hostile and marked by unmotivated children, including an awful football team that cannot compete. Yet he notices that most of the kids are excellent runners; what if they start a cross-country team and begin to compete?
The first thirty minutes of the film are a rough set-up, with the Whites coming across as fearful racists that believe they cannot live within a Hispanic culture. Yet the story develops into a quite accepting look at how difficult it can be for Hispanic children to distinguish themselves in a world that already believes they fall into certain cultural stencils. The students who form the cross country team at the heart of the film are intelligent, remarkably hard-working, devoted, and passionate. That cannot be said about most teenagers depicted in film, let alone ones based on a true story. Moments when Jim eats a proper Mexican meal and Cheryl (Jim’s wife, a mostly thankless role played respectably by Maria Bello) undergoes a makeover while her car is fixed shine an honorable light on a culture that is often mocked or generalized in film. Here, the story allows a development of a quinceañera to feel fitting in the story, along with the devotion to working within the family and preserving the tirelessly working spirit it takes to work in fields for entire days.
For every moment that the film spends developing that culture, it throws in unnecessary moments that only make the Whites seem out-of-touch. Jim White’s desire to work in a field one day simply makes him look old rather than unable to work, and his inability to run with the students makes him seem like an inappropriate choice for coaching a cross-country team. Regardless, the film has merits in its presentation of teamwork and resilience, particularly as racial stigmas pervade a white-dominated sport like cross-country. Californian prep students can be real jerks, at least based on what the film suggests. Costner’s good in his role, one that allows him to shine when the script doesn’t steer toward pandering; he doesn’t do well in tried, emotionally dead scenes after an act of gang violence drags the film to a halt. There are predictable beats, as with all Disney entries, never opting for surprise so much as inspiration with a nice cherry on top. That’s fine and all, and the film has plenty to enjoy, but it makes McFarland, USA feel like another safe entry in Disney’s catalog.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)