You’ve seen feel-good football and baseball movies, plus great underdog stories of boxing, basketball, soccer and cycling. So what’s left? The 1980s-set “McFarland, USA” has the answer: It’s cross-country.
The plot, based on a true story, is pretty much paint-by-numbers, and though “McFarland” adds a few surprising dashes of color, the look and feel are utterly familiar: an against-all-odds ascent, a nail-biting finale and recurring reminders that this isn’t just about some sports competition. (It never is.)
Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a hotheaded high school teacher and football coach who has lost his temper one time too many. After yet another dismissal, the only place he can find a job is at a school that will take whoever it can get. It’s in McFarland, California, a town where no one chooses to live, according to one of its young residents. People stay there because they have to.
So Jim and his family move to the San Joaquin Valley from Boise, Idaho, where he squandered a much cushier job. He brings his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and daughters, Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher).
“Are we in Mexico?” Jamie wonders when she wakes up near the end of the family’s southbound migration. You can understand her confusion. The White family is in the minority in their new town, which is composed mainly of pickers — men and women who do the backbreaking work of harvesting fruits, vegetables and nuts. In case there was any question just how much these people struggle to make ends meet, a longtime teacher storms into Jim’s classroom to inform him that he has just moved to one of the poorest towns in the country. Point taken.
Temperamental guy that he is, Jim doesn’t last long as assistant coach of the football team, and why would he want to? The first game he attends is a 63-0 loss. But he notices that what these kids lack in tackling talent, they make up for in speed. They run everywhere, and considering many of them work with their parents in the fields before and after school, they know something about stamina. Suddenly Jim has an idea: Form a cross-country team.
He assembles seven boys and grooms them for glory. They’re horrible at first, of course, but they get better, as ordained by the sports movie bible. And all the while, they face discrimination during meets from preppy white kids and their preppy white coaches who live in places like Palo Alto — places, incidentally, where Jim wishes he could live.
At first Jim has no intention of staying in McFarland, but over the course of the movie, he warms to the town, as do his wife and kids. Jim comes to the conclusion that 20-something Latinos riding around town single file in old, loud cars aren’t nearly as scary as he initially thought. They’re actually human beings with real human emotions who do nice human things. (Although in the world of the movie, any white character living in Palo Alto is never more than a racist, country club stereotype.)
And yet “McFarland, USA,” directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “North Country”), serves a few worthy purposes. Movies don’t often stray from metropolis settings even though there are more areas like McFarland than Los Angeles in the United States, and those places deserve their due. As do Hispanic actors. With the exception of small movies, such as the recent “Spare Parts,” they are rarely cast in movies (unless they’re fulfilling a specific stereotype), despite plenty of talent.
Carlos Pratts is a particular standout as one of the runners, who is also interested in Jim’s oldest daughter. The 28-year-old actor is miscast here, given that he looks closer to 30 than 18. But Pratts still makes an impression, playing the team’s fastest runner, a loner who never imagined he would be anything other than a picker.
The movie also evokes emotions and suspense the way any good story about athletics should. A new sport doesn’t equate to new ground, but there is pleasure to be had in a formula that works.