Apparently there’s a place in America called McFarland. Home of the “pickers”, flatlands of the Meheecans, McFarland is California-as-fly-over-state and the perfect staging grounds for an inspirational underdog story. Almost Steinbeckian in its desperate position of agricultural purgatory, McFarland is a training grounds for drop-outs and inmates, the kind of small town that plants their state pen adjacent to their high school with traffic between the two state institutions resembling the systematic marching of ants. But the days of crop picking woes are thrown out the window when a white man sport (cross country running) rears its dignified head and the white man (Kevin Costner) saves the day.
Hollywood has a long history of the flipping the noble savage equation on its head, planting a savior of a white dude in a pit of assorted-colored serpents and seeing what happens when you mix things up. Cool Runnings did it with Jamaicans and bobsleds, James Cameron did it with CGI and the Na’vi, Stand and Deliver did it with James Olmos and Math. In McFarland USA, Disney does it with distance-running Mexicans. It’s the seventh son of a scheming formula that’s as crowd-pleasing as it is emotionally manipulative. And if anyone does emotionally-manipulative right, it’s Disney. Sometimes.
Costner is Jim White, a high-school football coach who gets the proverbial boot when he hucks a cleat at a sassy quarterback and ends up knicking his country club face. It’s one of those classic coaching accident. No pain, no gain right? Unfortunately Coach Taylor’s “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” doesn’t really apply when you rough up the ol’ student athlete population. Fired and marked with the scarlet letter of “abuser of children”, White has few options on his once silver platter and is forced to uproot his family of four. Arriving in the dusty nowhere of McFarland, the Whites – if this weren’t based on a true story, the choice of last name would earn far more commentary – are faced with the harsh reality that their the only white face in a hundred mile stretch and the only chow joints in town are taquerias. And they don’t even serve burgers.
The White family fits into the town like pepperoni pizza into a tamale. Realizing they’re in hostile territory when a bunch of low-riders cruise by bumping the bass (a terrifying prospect), White vows to wife Maria Bello that he’ll get his family out of his Mexican-inhabited lion’s den with two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Playing the oh-so-intriguing role of “supportive wife”, she backs Jim out of his fight-or-flight instinct with the calm rationale that he’s about as desirable a teacher as Mama June is a bikini model. She might have suited up just fine back in her heyday but nowadays the prospects of such a fit aren’t so hot.
As is expected with these kinds of films, Costner’s White becomes an integral part of the community in less time than it takes a Kenyan to clock in a mile, recruiting himself for a position as a cross country coach (met with your standard issue ignorancia response of “cross country what?”) and assembling a sextet of hardworking, fast-running Mexican students because “Damn, look at that boy run!” When he locks down casual sprinter/day-laborer-in-the-making Thomas (Carlos Pratts) – who also serves as a low-broiling love interest for White daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor; 21 playing 15) – the prospects of a McFarland cross country team begins to bloom. The dustbowl of a town sees its first true spark of promise rising like the harsh sun above their endless fields of cabbage.
The ups and downs of McFarland USA are as calculatedly high and low as the mounds of discarded almond shells that the runner boys practice on. Dramatic tension is invented for no reason beyond an assumed need for dramatic tension – the Quinceañera parade scene being an aggressive offender of bait-and-swing melodramatic hogwash AND a complete editing miff – while various character arcs are forecast from the moment they arrive on set. A roguish hero with a troubled past overcomes the odds to become a champion, you say? How novel.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t actually work though. In fact, McFarland USA can be downright rousing, with Antônio Pinto‘s soaring eagle score (complimented by Terry Stacey‘s flag-brandishing cinematography) borderline forcing you at sonic gunpoint to tearfully cheer on its underdogs, even through hard-trained knowledge that McFarland‘s outcome will be as predictably cheerful as a Quinceañera in Beverly Hills. It’s the kind of heart-warming Disney sports movie that serves up its schmaltz in thick, gooey gobs, the brand of pick-me-upper to bring your little league team to but never bother to dig into the meaning behind it. Because beyond the surface layer of faux inspiring hooey balooey, there really isn’t much else there. After all, McFarland USA, or How Kevin Costner Saved the Mexicans From Picking More Crops, doesn’t actually concern itself with going beneath the skin. Even if it did, there really isn’t much else there that needs to be said. Or seen.