The difference between “McFarland, USA” and “Cool Runnings,” “Remember the Titans,” “The Rookie,” “Miracle,” “Glory Road” and “Million Dollar Arm” is this one is about cross-country.
Oh sure, each of these inspirational, “based on a true story” sports movies is about coaches and players and situations that are unique in their own way — yet there’s a certain familiar and comfortable rhythm to these movies, and it almost never varies, and it almost always works, even when we’re fully aware of how the music, the plot turns and the performances are manipulating us every step of the way.
So it is with “McFarland, USA,” which sounds a little bit like it might be the story of some coal mining town’s struggles in the mid-20th century but is actually based on the true story of a fledgling team of cross-country runners from one of the poorest counties in the United States, who competed in a couple of meets and then disbanded because they didn’t have a chance and they couldn’t afford to compete and the kids all had other obligations.
Of course that’s not what happened. This is a Disney sports movie! If everyone goes home after the first act, you don’t have a film; you have a six-part NPR series. You don’t need a SPOILER ALERT to know some pretty special things happened inMcFarland, USA.
The grizzled Kevin Costner might be a little TOO grizzled for this role, but he’s solid as a rock as Jim White — yes, his last name really was White — a hot-tempered, oft-fired high school football coach who is running out of options and has no choice but to take a job as an assistant coach at McFarland High, a predominantly Latino school in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Central California. As Jim and his wife (Maria Bello) and two young daughters drive though town on moving day, one of the girls asks, “Are we in Mexico?”
After a dicey encounter with some tough-looking low-riders on their first night in town, Jim is ready to pack the kids and leave town — but where to go? They’re stuck. He has to provide for them.
Jim’s transition from assistant football coach to forming a cross-country team and learning the sport along with the kids he recruits, and then guiding the team through some rough patches as they encounter family setbacks and humiliating defeats, follows a path as clearly marked as a cross-country race. For those of us who aren’t all that familiar with cross-country, director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) and a team of screenwriters do a nice job of explaining the rules of the sport without getting bogged down in the details.
Here’s the thing about cross-country. It’s an individual sport AND a team sport. If you finish first in the state championship meet, you’re the state champ! But your team’s ranking depend on the finishes of the top five out of seven runners. Which means when the race is over, everyone has to stand around while the judges compile the scores and then announce the winner.
Hardly the sporting-movie equivalent of a Hail Mary touchdown pass or a homer in the bottom of the ninth, yet “McFarland, USA” still has plenty of moments where you find yourself rooting hard for these kids, even though you know you’re watching a re-creation of events from the mid-1980s.
There’s always the risk a movie such as this can be all about the white man riding into town and saving the townsfolk. But “McFarland, USA” devotes as much time to the multi-generational Latino families as it does to the Whites.
Diana Maria Riva is a wonderful as the matriarch of the Diaz family, which has three brothers on the team. They’re allowed to practice and participate only if they keep up their schoolwork AND their backbreaking jobs picking in the fields. Carlos Pratts is excellent as the fastest and the most troubled runner on the team. Ramiro Rodriguez has some shining moments as Danny, whose build and footwork are more suited for football than running long distances on open terrain.
Yes, “McFarland USA” has the obligatory coda where we found out how everything played out for the coach and the key members of that 1987 team. You should stick around for that.