March, 2015, Drama

McFarland is a small town in Northern California whose population is comprised primarily of Hispanic field workers- -not the sort of place where The Disney Studios and Kevin Costner would be expected to choose as the location for yet another sports movie. But this unabashedly upbeat effort deserves a second look. It traces the experiences of Jim White, a mercurial high school coach in the late ‘80’s who took a job at the local high school and went on to develop championship cross-country track teams built on the mental drive and physical stamina of teenage boys formed by their early exposure to back-breaking work. The film slides into overt sentimentality along the way, but not before offering audiences a compelling look at the price paid by those who put fresh fruits and vegetables on America’s dining room tables.  

Costner exudes a quiet sense of self as the cantankerous PE teacher who’s forced to take a job where Anglos are rarely seen and often resented because of their casual racism. Sporting a long-suffering wife (Maria Bello) and a pair of adolescent daughters, Coach White - - referred to only by his last name or “Blanco” as an example of his student’s mocking disrespect - - takes up residence in a community whose culture and values are far removed from his own. He soon discovers that his athletes find it hard to take his coaching seriously because they have no belief that effort of any kind will allow them to rise above the hard and humble lives built by their parents. White sees the raw potential they possess, but finds himself frustrated by their inability to see beyond the limited circumstances in which they live and the suspicions of their parents who resent his efforts in luring his 6-man team into a sport which takes them away from the fields…

McFarland was directed by Niki Caro, a New Zealander who garnered praise 12 years ago for Whale Rider, a grossly over-rated movie about the treatment of that country’s native Maori population. That film didn’t accurately get at the underlying sense of despair to be found among it’s culturally denigrated minority, but this one does, providing crisply etched views of Mexican attitudes on hard work, family life and the need to draw pleasure from the simplest forms of neighborhood socializing.   

Costner’s understated performance and the film’s clear-eyed view of migrant farm workers are sadly undercut by Disney’s penchant for smarminess, seen here in a subplot involving White’s 15 year-old daughter Julie, played by Morgan Saylor, the perpetually-annoying daughter of Marine Nicholas Brody in Homeland. Now approaching her 21st birthday, Ms. Saylor’s petulance is well past its sell-by date and she manages to inject a discordant note of phoniness every time she’s on screen.

Caro offsets this cloying smarminess by supplying haunting images of the film’s locations, the torturous routes White’s runners had to conquer and an imaginative and well-crafted salute to those who ran in California’s first-ever cross country state championship.

The Verdict? Over look the occasional theme park sentimentality and concentrate on the movie’s tribute to young men with nothing to lose and everything to gain by simply believing in themselves.

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