Mark Reviews Movies

McFarland, USA


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Niki Caro

Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Morgan Saylor, Sergio Avelar, Ramiro Rodriguez, Rafael Martinez, Michael Aguero, Hector Duran, Johnny Ortiz

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic material, some violence and language)

Running Time: 2:08

Release Date: 2/20/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 19, 2015

McFarland, USA is a sports movie that doesn't know what to do with the sport that serves as its focus. To be fair, the sport is high school-level cross country running, which means that any participant or observer is in it for a longer haul than most cinematically friendly races. It's complicated to dramatize from both a visual and a narrative perspective, too, which we figure out almost as soon as the movie's central character explains the basics of the sport.

During most of the movie's racing sequences, the focus is on the lead runner. Once he crosses the finish line, though, there are still six other team members on whom we must wait. We've become so accustomed to the finality of the image of a racer crossing a finish line that it takes a couple of races to get used to the idea that one runner's triumph does not necessarily equal the team's victory.

See, points are determined by the finishing position of each member of the team. It's basic math, of course, but when we're watching four or five teams of seven members with runners vying neck-and-neck for seventh or even 17th place, one can imagine how confusing the communication of the sport becomes from a logistical standpoint. Then, of course, the question is whether or not the sport is interesting enough on a cinematic level to even justify finding a way to convey its intricacies.

Director Niki Caro, seemingly aware of these problems, basically splits the difference. We get shots of the runners struggling to keep the pace, passing or falling behind their opponents, and eventually crossing the finish line. All the while, their coach yells at them or mumbles to himself that they should maintain their pace or get by the guys in front of them. It's rudimentary stuff, but it at least gives us the basic gist of the sport and, of course, leads to those moments of equally rudimentary tension before the winners are announced.

More to the point, it gives us the impression that the sport here doesn't really matter. We don't need to follow the races. We need only know the outcome of each one. The lack of attention to the sport isn't a problem on its own, but it is, reflective of the way the screenplay by Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson handles the characters when they aren't involved in a race. It doesn't matter who they are as individuals. The only thing that matters is the end result.

The coach is Jim White (Kevin Costner), who has a history of having a short temper. He's fired from his most recent job after throwing a shoe at one of his players. He and his family—wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher)—move to McFarland, California, where Jim takes a job teaching physical education and serving as the assistant football coach at the local public high school. The football job doesn't last long, so Jim, noting how fast and for long some of his students can run, decides to start a cross country team.

The city's population, which is mostly Hispanic or Latino, is primarily made up of farm workers who wake up in the early morning hours to pick fruits and vegetables all day. The students on the team pick in the morning before going to school, return to work after their classes have ended, and then go practice.

We get some small details about the students' lives. Thomas (Carlos Pratts), the fastest on the team, has a father who has been away for work in fields throughout the Southwest (There's a moment that suggests Thomas' father may be abusive, but the movie ignores the implications). Victor (Sergio Avelar) has an uncle and a father in the prison that can be seen from the city. A trio of brothers (Ramiro Rodriguez, Rafael Martinez, and Michael Aguero) almost quit because practice is interfering with their work schedule.

The team members aren't individuals so much as several pieces that make up the movie's view of the community. The only individual character whose story means anything on its own is the coach, who arrives in town with a few prejudices and comes to learn that he might not have even half the character of his runners. It's yet another movie that adopts the point of view of an "outsider" who comes to appreciate the culture in which he finds himself. It might sound inherently patronizing, but the screenplay at least has the intelligence to examine issues of economic standing and the cultural divide without turning the coach into some kind of savior for the community.

McFarland, USA doesn't eschew the usual sports-movie clichés, either, but it does make them slightly more tenable. Even Jim's speeches don't feel like Big Speeches. Part of that is Costner's matter-of-fact delivery, but it's also because the coach's influence on the team starts to dissipate (The third act focuses on whether or not he'll take a job at a different school, which, again, does shove the team into the background). Even the training montage arrives near the end of the movie as a way to highlight the nature of the relationship between Jim and his runners. They're still "his runners," though, and we wish the movie saw them as more than that.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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