‘McFarland USA’: On the right track

February 19, 2015

mcfarland

 

Sports movies starring Kevin Costner: It could be a category on “Jeopardy.”

But that’s not really a bad thing. While the Costner oeuvre has its share of titles devoted to athletic themes, he hasn’t made many bad ones. He has a solidity and an honesty on screen that make him nearly perfect for stories about both character and the lack thereof.

In “McFarland USA”, he plays the aptly named Jim White. He’s a winning high-school football coach fighting s losing battle with his temper and his career. He winds up exiled to the only job he can land, as assistant coach at a poor school in a poverty-stricken rural community, McFarland, Ca.

It’s a less than ideal fit and he’s quickly banished to extra phys-ed teaching duty because he can’t get along with the head coach. Which is where he discovers that the local Hispanic students have both natural running talent and a startlingly determined work ethic. He forms a cross-country team at the school, despite the fact that he barely has enough runners for a team, that cross country was only recently sanctioned as a statewide competitive sport – and that he’s never coached the sport before.

He engages his athletes enough to give them hope, self-discipline and a new pride. And he learns something about the close-knit farm-worker families where the kids work before and after school – and athletics is considered an unnecessary expenditure of time, a luxury only Anglos can afford. Eventually, White (whose charges call him “Blanco”) earns their respect and learns how to motivate them.

It’s a solid, earnest film that never plays with cheap emotions. The fact that it is a true story – in the same way that “Hoosiers” was – gives it greater weight.

Costner, so good in the underrated “Black or White,” finds the soul of a man who expects others to work as hard as he does – and develops a little humility along the way. Maria Bello holds her own as his obviously long-suffering wife. The team of young actors who play his athletes all bring complexity to these characters.

“McFarland USA” is well-made and unabashed feel-good film that has the advantage of being true. How often do you find that?

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