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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 12:01 am

McFarland runs a winning course

Carlos Pratts as Thomas and Kevin Costner as Jim White in McFarland, USA.
PHOTO COURTESY WALT DISNEY PICTURES

 

Continuing their series of inspirational, true-life sports stories, Disney Pictures’ McFarland USA is a worthy addition to their cannon, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Miracle, The Rookie and Million Dollar Arm. To be sure, these are all exercises calculated to remind the audience of the strength of the human spirit and perhaps get them to make sure that their sons and daughters work on their curve balls or slap shots. Yet, despite their manipulative nature, the casting of strong, likable actors – young and old – helps us to embrace these fact-based stories, despite knowing that a fair bit of fiction has likely been thrown into the mix.

I doubt there’s a sports film pitched in Hollywood without Kevin Costner’s name attached to it somehow. However, instead of being an active participant on the field (Bull Durham, For Love of the Game) he’s graduated to calling the shots behind-the-scenes (Draft Day) or on the sidelines as he does here as high-school football coach Jim White. Having lost his coaching job in Boise, Idaho for being a bit too aggressive with his players, the coach harbors a bit of resentment over having to move to McFarland, California, a rundown, agricultural town populated mostly by poor Mexican-American families who work in the fields. White’s family – loving wife Cheryl (an underused Maria Bello) and daughters Julie and Jamie (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) – is far from thrilled either, but they put on a united face to try to acclimate to their new home, fully aware of their outsider status.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the players on his new football team are undisciplined and rude, though he does notice that many of them are very good runners. Despite a bit of blowback from the principal (Valente Rodriguez) White decides to start the school’s first cross-country team, though he gets a bit resistance from the runners he recruits. Wouldn’t you know it, once this ragtag group gets together, they start to bond, a natural leader (Carlos Pratts) emerges and the team gains confidence overall, both on the course and in the classroom.

The cultural divide that exists in the film is obvious and director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) succeeds in not overstating matters most of the time. There are the expected moments of confusion as White and his family grapple with the menu at a local Mexican restaurant and attempt to make sense of the town’s customs, while the family’s surname is the source of good-natured ribbing between the coach and his young charges. However, the division is bridged when White pushes his team during grueling practices, shares meals with them in their homes and actually joins them in the fields during harvest time. White is reminded about the importance of family in the process, something he sorely needs as he finds himself spending more time at school and less with his wife and kids. There’s always the danger of pushing things a bit too far in the credibility department, but screenwriter Grant Thompson injects the right amount of humor at key moments to make these sentiments go down a bit easier.

Costner is quite good here as he’s developed into one of our most dependable, veteran screen actors. Bringing a sense of natural gravitas to the screen, he effortlessly holds our attention, ready to dispense a bit of inspiration with conviction or a sullen wisecrack when a wisenheimer needs to be put in their place. He provides a solid center for the younger performers to revolve around and Pratt proves to be one of the better ones. As the team’s unofficial leader, he’s sincere where young actors are often cloying and able to keep our attention even when delivering a hackneyed, inspirational speech.

Caro allows the film to run a bit long, seemingly committed to rendering every sports cliché in the book, while a twist during the movie’s last half-hour feels calculated and hardly necessary. Despite this, there’s no question that the finale is an inspiring one and if McFarland proves anything where its formula is concerned, it’s that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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