There is a recognizable template to inspirational sports dramas developed by Disney. You have a beleaguered coach figure trying to reclaim his former glory. You have a rowdy, unmotivated group of ragtag players that just need to add discipline to their raw talent to attain success. You have an antagonist buoyed by prestige or power that the underdog protagonists have to face. You have montages set to swelling music, and of course, the inevitable down-to-the-wire speech, of which any dedicated fan of the genre could recite a variation. Oh, and most of the time, they are based on a true story.
The sport is different but the song remains the same for McFarland, USA. Kevin Costner continues his dismal streak of performances after Three Days to Kill and Draft Day, as high-school football coach Jim White. After roughing up a student, White loses his job at an elite secondary school and is forced to relocate with his family to rural California. Living off a teacher’s salary, Jim is wary of his outsider status in the largely Hispanic community of McFarland.
The town is a place where the students wake up at the rooster’s crow to pick crops before heading to school hours later. When Jim recognizes that a few of his students show more stamina running through the fields to school than they do in gym class, he decides to start a cross-country team at McFarland High. The students he wants to recruit for the team scoff. “That’s a private school sport,” the principal intones. Nevertheless, with a bit of motivation and determination, Jim – nicknamed Blanco by the student body, for his appropriate last name in the predominantly Hispanic town – starts getting some of the local teens in shape for state-wide runs.
Despite the generic subject matter, McFarland, USA wears its emotional beats on its sleeve, achieving a few powerful moments between Jim and some of the students – many of whom have few aspirations past providing for their family. Unfortunately, the film focuses more on the often-expressionless white coach than the runners. Of the seven students on the cross-country squad, the only one who make a deep impression is Thomas (Carlos Pratts), who has to deal with financial pressure at home. Another member of the group, Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), is best remembered for the sole quality of being the chunkiest sprinter in the group, a part that reduces a real-life person to a punchline instead of a character.
By the time there is a pre-credits roll call at the end, where we see the runners in their present form today and read where they went from McFarland High, we know too little about them for that post-script to make an impression. Accompanied by swelling music, these moments that should be uplifting instead feel heavy-handed. Meanwhile, any time screenwriters Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson insert a scene with the White family, the moment hardly registers. The opening few scenes with the Whites are especially stilted, with an awkward silence lingering, as if the actors had met just moments before the camera rolled and hadn’t yet found a familial chemistry.
The often wonderful Maria Bello gives little to the role of Jim’s wife, Cheryl, mostly shown as a prop for her husband to speak with and later root from the sidelines. Eldest daughter Julie (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) doesn’t get much to do either, reduced to crushing on Thomas and eye-rolling at her dad. Meanwhile, Elsie Fisher (the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me) is button-cute as little Jamie White, and earns some of the film’s only laughs.
Despite the predictability of the paradigm, McFarland, USA looks beautiful. Cinematographers Terry Stacey and True Detective’s Adam Arkapaw get some pleasing vista shots of the sandy mountains and orange groves, with the teenage runners lapping in the background. However, the camera rarely moves in to the visceral point-of-view shot, largely remaining still and steady on the sidelines. The distance between the camera and the runners is a telling sign for how little we learn about their lives and inner struggles. (It also doesn’t help that a rather dark, climactic moment with the runners happens entirely off-screen. Instead, we hear about this pivotal scene through flat exposition by one of the supporting characters.)
Director Niki Caro knows just when to pile on the sweeping strings for the final match, an effect she used with more restraint in another film featuring young underdogs, 2003’s Whale Rider. Considering that film’s ethnic specificity and balance of humor and poignancy, it’s a shame that Caro does not present a very complex look at McFarland’s Latino inhabitants. (It is telling that the only character we see getting a Quinceañera from the community is Julie White.) While setting the high school next to a prison is an effective symbol for the lack of viable opportunity for the town’s youth, that image alone is too simplistic to sum up such a complex issue.
Costner also seems tired with the stale material, and is often seen barking from the sidelines, with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips. Jim never becomes singular enough to stand out from the various inspiring coaches whose tales of triumph have been converted into uplifting Mouse House dramas. There is a rich, riveting underdog story to glean from these real-life events, but McFarland, USA is too curtailed by the limits of its Mouse House paradigm to reach a level of deeply moving drama.
McFarland, USA abides too closely to the paradigm of Disney sports dramas, becoming schmaltzy when it yearns to be inspiring.