As I mentioned in my review of “Million Dollar Arm” last May, the based-on-a-true story Disney sports movie has become its own subgenre, complete with well-established tropes (usually taking place in the not-too-distant past, usually centered around a heartwarming story of overcoming the odds), casting regulations (usually anchored by a slightly-past-their-prime male actor), and aesthetic parameters (honeyed sunlight shimmering over a playing field, concourse, or arena). When you say “Disney sports movie,” people know exactly what you’re talking about; it’s become a kind of shorthand. This year’s entry is “McFarland, USA,” the tale of a hot-tempered coach (played by Kevin Costner), who, in 1987, took a bunch of poor Mexican kids in California and turned them into an all-star cross-country team. While it’s tempting to lump the movie in with the rest of the Disney sports movies, this entry has an emotional and cultural specificity that sets apart from its ilk.
In “McFarland, USA,” Costner plays Jim White, a man whose cushy football coach position is undone by his fiery temper. He finally nabs a job in McFarland, a dusty little town in California’s Central Valley, an area known for its agricultural output and little else. While there, he butts heads with the new school’s administration while trying to provide a comfortable life for his wife (Maria Bello, hopelessly underserved by the material) and young daughters (the elder daughter is played by Morgan Saylor from “Homeland“). The dead-end nature of his job, and the hopelessness that he is in danger of being consumed by it, evaporates when he notices some of his students, all of them sons of the immigrant field workers, running home after school. Coach White then gets the bright idea to start McFarland’s first-ever cross-country team, which, true to form, is both hardscrabble and way out of their league.
Yes, this does sound like the typical Disney sports movie, especially since it comes complete with a rousing, triumphant climax where the former underdogs come out on top (this is such a foregone conclusion that it doesn’t even qualify as a spoiler). But it’s not exactly the same. It’s more emotionally sophisticated, allowing for plenty of time to be devoted to the personal and cultural lives of the characters, which makes all of the fists-in-the-air theatrics of the final act even more impactful. It’s a movie where audiences will cheer even while wiping away tears.
A couple of months ago, Costner starred in “Black & White,” a film that he produced, and which was supposedly about the strained race relationships in contemporary America but felt hackneyed, contrived, and really quite awful. What made “Black & White” even more of a disappointment was how poor Costner’s performance was. He was stiff and flat and, unlike virtually every other performance he’s given, totally tone deaf. All of this makes his performance in “McFarland, USA” feel like a last-minute save, a major win after a catastrophic loss. Costner is in total command of his performance, and it’s as good as any he’s ever given. He might be older, but he hasn’t lost any of the intensity that made him such a magnetic movie star in the first place, and seeing him take on a mentor role for these young actors (consisting of mostly unknowns), is a sight to behold. It’s a harder part than you’d imagine, full of subtle shading, and Costner pulls it off with spirit and grace. This is the movie he should have sunk his own money into.
It’s director Niki Caro, though, who deserves the most amount of credit for the success of “McFarland, USA.” The New Zealand director, whose last studio film was 2005’s “North Country,” does a tremendous job of presenting the culture and the landscape from the point of view of Coach White and his family. When the movie opens, the town is full of shadows, intimidating and alien. But as the movie opens up and White makes a closer connection to his students (while his family forms their own ties to the community), things become warmer. The stunning 35mm photography by Adam Arkapaw, who shot “Top of the Lake” and knows a thing or two about capturing the essence and mood of a very specific place, gradually becomes more expansive, almost glittery, with the cinematic possibilities of cross-country running truly embraced. Caro, throughout the course of the film, burrows into what makes these people tick, how their lives are determined by the landscape and vice versa. This is a major Hollywood release where the soundtrack is composed almost entirely of Tejano songs and that dramatizes things like a quinceañera. It luxuriates in Mexican culture and traditions, the artwork and food and festivities. Quite frankly, it’s shocking that Caro got away with it. This is, after all, a Disney sports movie, one that is supposed to appeal to the widest possible audience.
Except that thematically, “McFarland, USA” is incredibly relatable and universal. Anyone who has had to work for their parents, who has had an overbearing coach, or who has just struggled to make it through that next hurdle or obstacle, will find something to root for in the film. The cultural specificity that is so refreshing gives way to the universality of certain emotions, embodied by the young actors playing the runners, and it makes for an incredibly potent cocktail.
If there’s something to criticize the film for, besides its slightly overlong run time, it’s the fact that White’s wife, Cheryl (Bello), took a much more active role in the team’s development and success in real life. This is glazed over almost completely, which would be more understandable if the filmmaker behind the camera wasn’t Caro, who has a history of outwardly feminist films. It’s disappointing, especially since Caro would have made that subplot sing, but it’s really the only major stumbling block for a movie that is otherwise pretty wonderful.
While “McFarland, USA” doesn’t reinvent the wheel (in fact, it makes “Million Dollar Arm” seem even more abstract, due to its virtual absence of actual sports), it does deliver in all the ways you expect that a Disney sports movie should: it’s heartwarming, handsome, and features an exceptional Costner performance at its center. With Caro at the helm, too, it offers a much deeper look at where these athletes came from and where they’re headed. When you can run this fast, it’s very easy to get away from what has held you back. [B+]