By Kyle G. King. The inspirational true story surrounding a team of tenacious young Latino track stars and how they came to beat the odds is served as a pedestal to elevate the adeptness of an aging Kevin Costner in McFarland, USA. With a formula very reminiscent of movies like The Blind Side, The Help, and even 1995’s Dangerous Minds, McFarland, USA lends itself to the tiring trope of “the white messiah”, one that typically portrays a white person inspired by the spirit of a person or persons of color, who rescues them from a life of certain mediocrity and leads them into one of glory.
New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) takes the reins on a script (penned by Grant Thompson, Christopher Cleveland, and Bettina Gilois) that sees Jim White (Costner) moving his wife and his two daughters (Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, and Elsie Fisher, respectively) to the only town with a job that will appease his occasionally hotheaded approach to teaching.
Set in Central California in 1987, McFarland is a city where its Mexican-American population is by far the majority. The script slathers on the culture-clash quickly for the family: not being able to order from a taco menu and assuming people of color in low-riders are gangbangers, the Whites are clearly out of their element. But beyond his misguided racial profiling, Jim White sees something else in the kids he teaches in his gym class: they are all really damn fast, and they do not stop running for anything. It seems all that hard work in the fields, while running from home to school to work to home again has built up a lot of endurance in them. White (“Blanco” is what the kids quickly label him) hatches a plan to finally create a winning cross-country running team for himself, for the school, and for a group of young kids seemingly doomed to the life of “a picker.”
Of course there is plenty of failure to be had in the film’s first act (accompanied by plenty of cinematically beautiful montages). As it is with most dramas of this sort, the star runner of the team (a strapping young man named Thomas – Carlos Pratts) is also the most troubled and defiant, and White quickly learns that simply “being harder” on these kids won’t hack it like his previous jobs. With a character that sees him running up and down fields with the boys, getting down and dirty picking crops alongside them, or taking seven shares of enchiladas when he’s asked over for dinner, White makes strides with his community as the team makes strides for him. Leave it to Costner to ask for pity only to give you heart in return.
Where the film gets lazy though, is its devotion to Costner as its star player. While a lesser known actor might have demanded less attention – attention that could have been handed over to the kids, say – Costner (while not entirely undeserving) dominates much of the screentime. What this leads to is a white washed disconnect between the audience and the team they’re supposed to be rooting for, composed of Mexican-American kids whose culture is observed only through the Whites. We’re presented (woefully short) episodes into how the other half gets on, but the film lacks a real investment into the characters that could later payoff. The film takes small strides in the right direction – peeks into Thomas’ troubled home life, the three Diaz brothers’ long work-school-track day, and a few scenes with the local grocery store owner Sammy (Danny Mora) who is the first welcoming voice for White – but with McFarland, USA‘s air of haughtiness, nothing reads as truly compassionate.
What these two worlds lack is a coherent link between them. There’s a real sense of family and community that can be gleaned from the script (and you do see it play out on screen), but there are too many scenes that ache with a phoned-in melodrama that are too obvious not to comprehend. What you definitely feel are waves of triumph during each race, win or lose, delivered beautifully by both sharp cinematography at the hands of Adam Arkapaw (responsible for HBO’s original series True Detective) and bleeding heart performances from a team of youngsters (Pratts, Rafael Martinez, and newcomers Ramiro Rodriguez and Michael Aguero).
A rather predictable storyline that leans heavily on Costner with little screen time (or perspective) for the impoverished and heavily Hispanic farming town, McFarland, USA can still successfully pull at the heartstrings. But that’s only achieved when it applies the tried and true formula of the many films that came before it. With inspired performances all around and a dignified cultural step forward (though the bar is set pretty low), McFarland, USA at least shows a little hope that – possibly, maybe, just maybe – Hollywood can think outside the white box.
Disney has the means to sell a culturally diverse movie to a culturally diverse demographic. McFarland, USA, with its largely Latino cast, aims and certainly succeeds in doing just that. But where movies like Remember the Titans proved that Disney could tread new ground in family friendly yet politically and historically correct material, the film lacks the foundation to hold it all together with the same resonance. Take your family to see it sure, but remind your kids not to take too many tips from the Kevin Costners in their life.