Wait, where’s Al Simmons and the Violator?
The “Disney sports movie” has now become a brand, so that at least once a year, we get an inspirational true sports story in theaters. This time around, the sport is cross country, in the tale of the McFarland High School team. The young runners started from humble beginnings, only to take on the entire state of California.
It’s the late 1980s. High school football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner, The Postman) loses his cool and hits a student. Cut to later, and the only teaching job he can get is in the low-income, mostly Hispanic town of McFarland, California. After further being demoted from assistant football coach down to cross country coach, White sees potential in his students’ powerful athleticism. White forms friendships with his students and their families, strengthening his own family along the way.
It can be a tricky thing, reviewing a movie based on a true story. Any criticism I make has the specter of “But what if that’s how it really happened?” hanging over it. Still, this is an adaptation, whittling down more than a year in these people’s lives into two hours, so creative liberties had to be taken. With that in mind, let us focus on the onscreen drama, and not the history nitpicking.
You’ve seen this movie before. You’ve likely seen this movie a lot of times. A teacher/coach turns a ragtag bunch into a group of winners. In doing so, the teacher/coach becomes a better person. The troubled, angry kid will find a positive direction in his life. The kid who’s not as athletic as the others will get his big hero moment. There’s a bunch of snobby rich kids from a rival school that get their comeuppance. That’s the movie is this, and it hits all the same beats that similar movies have had in the past.
A big part of the story is how the kids divide their time between school and working in the fields to help support their families. “Pickers” in the movie’s preferred term for this. Then, at one point early on, one of the team members makes a big, important speech about being a picker. This speech pointedly lays out everything White (and the audience) needs to know about the kids’ hard situation in life. Later, White spends a day with the students in the field, to learn first-hand what it’s like. Seems to me that this could have been done without the big, important speech, using a more deft hand to make the movie’s points, but that’s not the type of movie this is.
A lot of the movie has to do with White and his family being the only Caucasians in a town apparently populated entirely by Hispanics. The filmmakers go to extremes playing up the fish-out-of-water thing. When the family goes to a Mexican food restaurant, White acts all shocked to learn they don’t serve hamburgers, and is further flummoxed to hear tacos are on the menu. Is a taco really that exotic, so much so that it makes a person feel like he’s out of place in the world? A taco? Seriously?
At the height of his popularity, Kevin Costner was known for playing the charismatic every-man type. Now, though, he plays characters who a quieter, introspective types. He portrays Jim White in a deeply internal way, as the character observes others more than interacting with them. The easy criticism is to call the performance flat or unenergetic, but then we see White spring to life when coaching, his throaty shouts to the runners to push themselves harder as they come around the bend. White’s only desire in this story is to become a coach. It’s never explained where this comes from, but this is the one thing he pursues, at the cost of all else in his life, including familial relationships and job status. We do see his attitude change throughout the film, as he makes efforts to be a better father to his daughter, but still the character arc is all about wanting to be a coach, and then meeting that goal. This singular drive comes at the expense of the characters in the cross country team, who are the same stock types seen in all sports movies, hitting all the story points we’ve come to expect.
A big chunk of this movie’s target audience isn’t going to care whether it is predictable or cliché. They’re going to want a feel-good movie with inspirational speeches and a big happy ending — and not have to think about anything. On those notes, the movie succeeds as a perfectly passable time-waster.
With Disney’s money backing the film, it looks great, making the most of the sunny California locations. The visuals translate excellently onto Blu-ray, in the film’s wider-than-usual 2.39:1 aspect ratio, with vivid colors and natural flesh tones. Audio is decent but not booming, clean and free of any glaring defects. There are two featurettes, “McFarland Reflections” and “Inspiring McFarland,” which combine behind-the-scenes looks at the movie with a closer look at the real-life story that inspired it. There are also some deleted scenes, a music video for the song “Juntos” by Juanes, and a digital download.
Movies similar to this but a lot better: Stand and Deliver, Miracle, The Bad News Bears, Friday Night Lights, and then Stand and Deliver a second time.