At this point, Disney sports films seem to have given us all they’ll ever have to offer. Check McFarland, USA, in which all of the obligatory ingredients are there: the down-on-his-luck coach, trying to make a difference in both his life and the lives of his athletes, must face competitors with a lot to prove, amidst overcoming many odds. Done; on to the next one. Except director Niki Caro, known for such triumphs as Whale Rider and North Country, is not willing to rest on Disney’s formula alone. Finding emotional depth in surprising places, she lends the film a truly sweet spot at its core that ultimately makes it seem like so much more than your typical Disney-fied sports flicks such as Glory Road or The Rookie.
After losing yet another coaching job due to issues with both his temper and questionable motivational methods—he’s kind of a curmudgeon!—Jim White (Kevin Costner) uproots his family and moves them to a lower income, predominantly Latino community in California’s Central Valley. There White is hired as the local high school’s new P.E. teacher. (Yes, his surname is White and his brood just so happen to be one of the only Caucasian families in town; Disney doesn’t get any points on subtlety here.) After witnessing some of his students’ potential, he recruits a small group of them to start a cross-country team—which is where McFarland, USA’s premise separates itself from other sports stories. Not often is cross-country racing a sought after cinematic topic: it’s much more exciting to watch the action of a football or basketball game than it is to slowly witness a group of people running over long distances to a finish line. Even baseball is somehow more compelling.
Yet cross-country running is the film’s lynchpin, and Caro seems to know intuitively that there is only so much one can expect from an audience watching someone breathe heavily for an hour. Instead, she makes manifest the runners’ internal struggle—the test of endurance raging within each athlete—to energize the film’s racing scenes. There is a noticeable sense of rivalry between the other schools against whom the McFarland team competes: cross-country is considered an upper class sport in which only wealthy schools (such as Palo Alto) can excel. And so, to her credit, Caro is willing to take her material to darker places than one might forecast in a film of this nature and brand. While, of course, the PG-rated McFarland, USA is overall light in tone, moments of gang violence and stark portrayals of poverty raise its stakes, delving deeper into the emotional turmoil of its characters. The audience can begin to understand the drive for success in these kids’ eyes, and become so much more invested in them.
Though there are some noticeable pacing problems in its dragging second act, Caro allows plenty of room for the audience to connect with each of the kids on the team, digging more into the building of the team—the issues that bring them together—than their ultimate performance. As Coach White and the students bond over practices, classes and even meals, they become a family. This is the film’s real focal point; the actual family members of the film, the Whites, are little more than caricatures before they move to McFarland: they don’t want to move and they seem really sour as they go through all of the work required—packing, mostly—to do so. Meanwhile, Coach White wants nothing more then to get his family out of McFarland and into a town he considers “safe.” But once the cross-cultural lines begin to blur, the connections that Coach White forms with his new family drive him to eventually embrace the town and all who inhabit it.
“Coach White” is nothing new for Costner—he can play this role in his sleep at this point—but even with his recent turn in Black or White, which explored nearly identical themes of race (to admittedly very different results), it’s some of the best work Costner has done on the big screen in practically a decade. Same for Maria Bello: She isn’t given a whole lot to do besides stand around and be a supportive wife figure, but she does what she can with the material. The film’s real driving forces are the performances from the boys on the team, notably Carlos Pratts, who plays Thomas, the most gifted runner of the group. Pratts carries most of the emotional weight of the film on his shoulders, working furiously to push his teammates, to mature into a leader though he initially can’t imagine himself as one. Of course: leave it to Coach White to unlock that desire within him.
McFarland, USA is the Million Dollar Arm of 2015: a sweet, family-friendly film that briefly tackles some important topics of race and class in America without trying too messily to give up formula and cause too much commotion. Which may just seem like another piece of predictable Disney fare—magic white man teaches non-whites how to value themselves as he learns to value himself—but somehow Caro has a deft enough directorial hand to make McFarland, USA seem like a different sort of film: one that may endure.
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson
Stars: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Daniel Moncada
Release Date: February 20, 2015