Movies like ‘McFarland, USA’ are tough to review. On the one hand, they’re painfully predictable and offer no surprises for anyone who has seen an inspirational underdog sports drama. On the other hand, that’s exactly what the movie’s target audience wants.
The flick is competently made and hits all the expected beats in all the expected ways. I suppose that makes it a success for the intended audience, just not necessarily as a movie in general. Oh well, at least everyone involved in the production means well.
It’s 1987 Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a disgraced football coach who’s forced to move his family to the small and impoverished town of McFarland to start all over again. Frustrated and terrified that this might be his last chance at having a career, White doesn’t quite know what to do at first. He has a hard time fitting in amongst the predominantly Spanish-speaking community and has an even harder time getting respect from his new students. Yet, he notices that the students in his school have a talent for running pretty gosh darn fast. Even though he doesn’t have any experience whatsoever in the sport, White decides to start a cross-country running team. He has to learn how to do the job just as quickly as the students have to learn the sport, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll all learn from each other. You know, the type of learning that builds bonds, saves broken lives and triumphs over adversity. Yup, that old story yet again, only with Kevin Costner this time.
The film comes from director Niki Caro, whose background is not in inspirational sports fluff, but rather sensitive portraits of depressed communities like ‘Whale Rider’ and ‘North County’. The movie is at its best when Caro is freed from her sports genre shackles and able to simply paint a portrait of a community. She gets the most out of her cast of veterans like Costner and Maria Bello, as well as the crop of fresh faces playing the kids and locals, like Carlos Pratts (from the equally mediocre ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’). Despite all the swelling music and predictable dramatic beats, a pleasant naturalism emerges amongst the cast, which helps elevate the material above its humble origins in a few scenes.
Granted, once the predictable motions of the genre are set in place, it’s hard to confuse this by-the-numbers sports movie with real life even though it’s based on a true story. When White seems to question his new community in a gently racist way, we know that he’ll eventually have a change of heart, just like how we know that when he notices his students’ speed that their destiny is in place, or that any time adversity rears its ugly head, it’s only to set up a moment of triumph. The movie never ceases to be painfully obvious in its message or drama, yet it’s hard to fault the filmmakers too much for that. After all, the movie might be generic, but only in a way that audiences expect from this type of picture.
As dull and bland as ‘McFarland, USA’ felt for me personally, I can’t pretend that the flick is a disaster. Caro is a decent filmmaker who has succeeded with trickier material before, so she pulls this one off just fine. It’s a very pleasant, rousing and sweet little movie that does absolutely everything it’s supposed to perfectly competently. For what it is, the movie works.
In a weird way, that makes ‘McFarland, USA’ a perfect Kevin Costner vehicle for this point in the actor’s career. Costner doesn’t lend a movie the guaranteed bank he once did, nor is he particularly interested in stretching outside of his comfort zone. (Dropping out of ‘Django Unchained’ proved that.) However, when Costner shows up to play a Costner-like role, he does so with a very Costner-like level of success. He’s not a bad actor, just one who showed us everything that he’s capable of at some point in the 1980s and hasn’t bothered to do anything else since. Still, there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in watching him go through the motions, much like there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in walking through the inspirational sports drama motions one more time.
You know what you’re getting with ‘McFarland, USA’ when you buy a ticket, and you get exactly that. For those interested by the trailer, prepare for the exact movie you want and expect. For those hoping for anything other than competent sports movie mediocrity, don’t bother. Just like the movie’s built-in audience, you already know that you’ll hate this movie, so why show up for proof? There will be worse sports dramas made in the coming years and there will be plenty of better ones too. This one shoots for the middle and hits it, which is fine. It’s not great or even memorable, but fine.