by Lee Purvey
You get the sense McFarland, USA--the fifth feature from New Zealander Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country)--is hiding something. A film coated in a layer of inspirational sports positivity so thick that it becomes impossible to see anything other than good guys, the film nevertheless carries a sneaking uneasy stink of something off underneath.
A sort of spiritual successor to the character he played in the 1990 white-guy-helps-out-repressed-minority-community-out-of-the-goodness-of-his-heart epic Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner is Jim White (academics will have a field day with that surname, though the film, to its credit, displays a certain awareness of this obvious symbolism), a gifted but contentious teacher-coach who lands in the impoverished town of McFarland, California when he’s fired from his last job for hitting a student athlete. As he pulls into the “Fruit Bowl of California,” White’s youngest daughter asks: “Are we in Mexico?”
Director: Niki Caro
Producer: Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray
Writers: Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Grant Thompson
Cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw, Terry Stacey
Editor: David Coulson
Music: Antonio Pinto
Cast: Kevin Costner, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Diana Maria Riva, Omar Levya, Valente Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher
US Theatrical Release: February 20, 2015
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
McFarland is a largely Hispanic rural community based around a grueling agricultural economy. As the movie would have it, in McFarland you grow up with only two real options in life: picking in the fields or prison (options made abundantly clear by any number of melodramatic assertions of self-doubt on the part of White’s students). These Mexican kids need something to believe in.
Enter good old Anglo-American values of sport, heart, and running very long distances. Booted (once again) from his new position as assistant football coach when he heroically refuses to let a concussed student return to the field (over the head coach’s dimwitted protestations), White notices his student’s unusual running ability during his PE classes and decides to put together a cross country team. The subsequent events dramatize the true story of McFarland High School’s 1987 cross country season, which took them all the way to the State Championship.
Caro, here, does a functional job with what she’s given, but there’s little evidence of the grit and emotional authenticity of 2002’s Whale Rider, her breakthrough film. Instead, McFarland, USA operates by a cinematic shorthand so dimensionless it almost feels like self-parody. In the world of McFarland, USA, domestic drama is forgetting to pick up your daughter’s birthday cake, while the violent consequences of extreme poverty are a single lowrider full of faceless men, shown at a distance and cut away from almost immediately. In McFarland, when a coach says “When we qualify for State,” his athlete literally asks “Don’t you mean if?” In McFarland, when people are surprised they quickly remove their sunglasses from their faces. In McFarland, community unity takes the form of a car wash. There’s funk music. People spray each other with the hoses, laughing. Nothing goes wrong in McFarland and no one is ever at fault.
Operating by a formula we’ve all seen countless times, it’s obvious McFarland, USA doesn’t belong to Caro at all, but to producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Grey, whose Mayhem Pictures has churned out such singularly inoffensive Disney efforts as The Rookie, Invincible, and Miracle over the last decade or so. You’ve already watched McFarland, USA. You know they’ll lose the first race, but win the second one. You know when the music is coming in and whether it will make you feel happy or sad. The interesting thing about it, equally beautiful and terrifying, is that it somehow still works. Well-paced and consistently engaging through a runtime that tops the two-hour mark, this is nothing if not an effective and extremely entertaining movie. Which of course is why they keep making them. Despite its utter predictability, McFarland USA still makes you feel.