When Kevin Costner tells you to run, you run!
After being fired for accidentally hitting a kid on his football team, Jim White (Kevin Costner) has to move away for his new job, teaching physical fitness at a high school in the dead-end city of McFarland, California. But as soon as he arrives, he and his family already seem to have problems with the predominately Latino-area, where they don’t know if they can fit in with the locals, or if they’ll even be safe. Not to mention too, Jim himself is already clashing heads with some members of the department at work. But what seems to be an option that was dead-on-arrival, Jim realizes something about his students that nobody else has noticed before: They can run. Like, really fast. Jim then gets the bright idea to start a cross country team, even though the school doesn’t really have the money for it. And also, the kids that he wants to put on the cross country team, may not be able to dedicate themselves fully it, only because they have to get up early every morning, then go to school, then go back to work, come home and continue with the same pattern the next day.
And, if you couldn’t by now, don’t worry, it’s all based on a true story. But whereas that would actually destroy a movie and make it all feel like a bunch of schmaltzy, family-oriented sap, it actually works in McFarland, USA‘s favor, because it puts everything into perspective. Everything we’re seeing – the people, the notable events, the where, the when, the how – all of that seems to be spawned from sort of truth. Sure, most of the nitty, gritty details we’re probably changed up to give the final-product some sort of illustrious appeal, but for the most part, the movie feels like it’s actually telling a true story and isn’t trying to pull any punches.
At least, not all of the time.
For the most part, the movie is trying its hardest to make you cry, cheer and run along with it everywhere it goes, which can be a bit obvious at times. You know where this story is going, what it’s going to try to say, and the movie doesn’t care that you know this – they’re too busy trying to make you sob in your seats like a little baby who just got their pacifier taken away. There’s no problem with that, so long as the movie that’s trying to do that in the first place isn’t evil, manipulative, and maniacal, like my ex-girlfriend was when it came to choosing between her, or “my family” (obviously we all know which one I chose, because, well, I’m a dude. Yo.).
But that’s where McFarland, USA shines, whereas other movies would most likely show their cards early on in the game, lose hope from its audience, and just become an overlong-slog of every sports movie cliché you’ve ever seen done. Which is maybe all the more impressive, due to the fact that the sport this movie just so has to be portraying is cross country and I don’t know about any of you out there, it’s a bit hard to make cross country entertaining or exciting. Well, except for maybe the final minute or so of a run when it becomes clear that it’s neck-and-neck between two opponents, but other than that, it’s just a lot of jogging. And jogging. And jogging. And jogging.
And, well, you get my point.
Somehow though, with Niki Caro’s direction, the movie pays more attention to the characters, who they are and why exactly they’re worth our time, our attention, and our hoots and hollers for when it seems like all is on the line, even if, at the end of the day, it is just another race. But to these folks in this movie, it’s so much more and because we can see this, it starts to become the same way for us; most of these characters don’t ask for our pity, but we’re able to give it to them anyway because they all seem so likable, innocent and honest with themselves, as well as the others around them. The movie still brings up certain aspects concerning these characters and how they’ll ultimately clash heads for the third-act, but when it does eventually come around, it feels more deserved than often not.
This is definitely credit to Caro and how she doesn’t look away from these characters and what makes them worth caring about in the first place. And for anybody that feels like this is, yet again, another tale of how the older, wiser white man comes in and saves the day for all of the not-so well-off foreigners, they’ll be sadly mistaken. Sure, we get plenty of attention paid to Costner’s character and how he comes into this town to give mostly everybody there some shed of light in their eyes, but he changes as well. Jim White, as we see early on in the movie, has a problem with his anger and gets fed-up quite easily, which is where he begins to totally lose it; however, once he realizes that he may have to spend more time with these kids to make them the best runners on the face of the planet, then he’s willing to settle down and even see the side of the equation from their point-of-view.
Trust me, I know this sounds incredibly corny and formulaic, but I’ll be damned if Costner didn’t sell me on this character and his transformation, as mild as it may seem.
And like I said, there’s more characters to focus on here whose names literally aren’t “white”. For the most part, we get a peak into all of these kids’ lives – how they get up for work, how they get to work, how they get to school, how they trot on back to work, and how they ultimately end back at home to do the same thing the next day – but the one who we get to learn the most about, and with good reason, is Danny Diaz, played very well by Ramiro Rodriguez. Though I don’t know much about the Diaz in real life, except from what I’ve just recently read after the fact, the movie paints him out to generally be a nice kid, albeit, one with a rough life that was dedicated to work, school and his family. The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that most of these younger Hispanic kids literally had to make a living, day in and day out, on just picking whatever they were told to pick on that excruciatingly hot day, whether it be fruits, vegetables, or plant-roots.
With Diaz, we get to see his motivations play out in front of our very own eyes and it’s quite delightful to watch, nearly tear-jerking. Then, once we see Diaz connect with White, his family, and how he’s able to orchestrate the rest of the city to do so, almost did me in. I can promise you, people, I didn’t cry during this movie. But I will admit to having to fight some tears away with the subscripts we get before the end credits and I dare you not to feel the same way.
That damn Danny Diaz, man.
Consensus: Though it’s sappy, earnest, wholesome, and conventional to a fault, McFarland, USA is still a solid example of what can happen when you take the uplifting sports-story, add heart, add emotion, and add characters we can care for, and end up making mostly everybody happy.
7.5 / 10 = Rental!!