Made with balanced proportions of drama, humor, and heart, McFarland, U.S.A., a new Disney film from New Zealand director Niki Caro, tells the story of hot-tempered, recently-fired, and down-on-his-luck football coach Jim White. It is based on the actual coaching career of White, who retired in 2002 after four decades of coaching.
Played by Kevin Costner, Coach White moves his family to the very poor and almost entirely Latino agricultural town of McFarland, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, to take the only job he can get. Upon arriving in McFarland, the Whites quickly realize they are living in a drastically different community, as evidenced by their youngest daughter’s question as they drive down their new street, “Are we in Mexico?”
As Coach White begins his job as a physical education teacher/assistant football coach at McFarland High School, he encounters surprising realities. Since he is white, everyone assumes he commutes from Bakersfield. A young teacher with an activist spirit, encouraging Coach White to get more involved in a variety of efforts, describes McFarland as “the poorest city in America.” As she makes her argument to Coach White, she grimly points out that right next door to the high school is a prison—a concrete reminder of how common is the transition from student to inmate.
The challenges are also evident on the field. The head football coach callously endangers a player, Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran), who lacks a linebacker’s stature and thus gets a near-concussion. However, Coach White notices something else, after being cut as assistant football coach: the boys in his P.E. classes can run like nothing he’s ever seen. Especially notable is Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), who White actually clocks running at 12 miles per hour, seemingly stalking him by truck as Thomas runs from school to work in the fields.
So begins Coach White’s plan to make himself something more than the just-hired-and-fired assistant football coach. He starts working to round up runners to get the seven athletes necessary for a cross-country team—which is viewed as a “private school” sport. Persuading the naturally-gifted runners to run for sport and not just out of the utility of getting to work and school on time proves to be a tall order. When conflicts emerge between the necessities of life and the hope of athletic achievement and even educational opportunity, Coach White gets to know the families of his students in hopes of persuading them to run—and to keep running—for sport.
Mashing up the sports and fish-out-of-water genres, McFarland, U.S.A., portrays the White family as being somewhat adrift in their mid-1980’s mindset, not really being from any place in particular and not seeming to believe in much except “working.” The impoverishment of Coach White’s perspective is brought home to him when—dutifully preoccupied with his coaching responsibilities—he forgets his daughter’s birthday. A friend, referring to the Mexican-American fathers in McFarland, gravely tells Coach White, “None of these fathers would forget their daughter’s birthday.”
One remarkable thing about McFarland, U.S.A., is the honesty with which so many situations, interactions, and fears are portrayed. It’s reasonable to expect a certain level of political correctness from Hollywood these days, but McFarland, U.S.A., portrays people talking the way they actually talk, fearing what they actually fear, and overcoming their prejudices the way actual human beings do. The characters are not mere politically-correct automatons here to teach us a lesson (similar in ways to the characters in Costner’s other recent film, Black or White).
So much is done well in McFarland, U.S.A.: it has a perfectly chosen cast, a compelling and well-structured plot that satisfies the sports genre’s needs while never neglecting the humanity of the characters, and the cinematography brings inspiration and beauty to the running sequences, while never getting in the way of the story.
To director Niki Caro’s credit, this film persuasively and subtly tells a story that could have been very melodramatically overdone, and it does so by portraying a social principle familiar to those who love St. Pope John Paul II: solidarity as a response to struggle. Rather than sitting back and saying, “Things should be different,” the story of Coach White is of a man who meets his impoverished students and their families and seeks—after some initial difficulties and awkwardness—to know them and to genuinely become part of their lives. Most notably, he takes upon himself some of the burdens that they must endure.
After realizing that he is asking his runners to practice for an hour after they’ve already been working since dawn in the fields, and furthermore that three brothers’ absence from their father’s crew is costing the family money, he shows up in their truck one Saturday morning to work with them. It was during that sequence that a movie about cross-country running began to feel like a Christian allegory.
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