McFarland USA

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I remember as a kid watching the Oscars when Chariots of Fire came out. It seemed the week leading up to the awards show there were so many clips of people running in slow motion with that annoying Vangelis score.

As an adult, I see so many sports movies (a few from Disney), that follow the same game plan. It’s a coach that needs to find redemption. He has players that are snotty, mostly because they have a bad home life (this lets us like them after that reveal). The bigger snots always end up being the team from the rich school. They have the fancy uniforms, and of course, they’re always talking smack to the poor kids during competition. Perhaps you can believe kids might do this in the heat of competition, but you’ll never buy that other coaches would be so racist. This movie was taking place in 1987, not 1937.

You end up going to these films just hoping the “based on a true story” won’t have you rolling your eyes so much, and that you won’t have to listen to yet another Vince Lombardi style speech.

I can’t say it’s nice to see Kevin Costner popping up in so many movies these days. The last thing I liked him in was The Upside of Anger, and that was over a decade ago. He plays a former baseball player in that, and we can all agree when he plays athletes or coaches (or a GM as he did in Draft Day) well. It’s just a matter of him picking scripts with a bit more meat.

The opening scene we see how Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) loses his job is done really well. He has to movie his family to a poor, rural California town of McFarland. It looks to be 90% Hispanic, and the first scene we get with the Latino principal is great. I started to think this movie was going to avoid those clichés – the male colleague that wants him fired because he’s a jerk; the female colleague that wants him fired because he just doesn’t care about the kids the way he should; the angry wife that thinks he spends too much time with the players because he DOES care about the athletes and neglects the family, etc. etc. etc.

Instead, those characters are all there, and saying “spoiler alert” isn’t necessary, because we all know the drill. This is how sports films are done. That’s exactly why when a movie like The Wrestler comes out, all of us critics rave about it.

Once the family goes out to dinner and are surprised they can’t get hamburgers at a small Mexican restaurant – and seemingly don’t know what a taco is – and how the coach gets scared of guys in lowriders that roll up…I sort of gave up hope that the next few hours would work. It just doesn’t make sense that a Caucasian man from a different neighborhood, would be so baffled by lowriders, quinceaneras, and quesadillas. Also strange that when somebody says about one of the dads, “He just got out”…he didn’t know that meant prison. So a lot of the fish-out-of-water moments weren’t very believable.

Now, the visual of the prison right next to the school was a nice, subtle way to remind us that there were limited economic opportunities for a lot of these kids, and which building some will be going to when school finishes for them.

It would’ve been nice to learn more about the athletes. We do get to see one family that forces there child to pick crops before going to school. That’s really the only one we get to find out about.

As is usually the case with movies of this nature, the female characters aren’t given much to do. That’s a shame, because the talented Mario Bello plays the wife. Daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) doesn’t have much more than a crush on one of the runners.

Director Niki Caro did an amazing job with Whale Rider, another story about an ethnic underdog. Maybe the fact that I was so impressed with that, made it a bigger let down watching this.

The three screenwriters should be forced by my old basketball coach to run laps for not doing a better job with such inspirational material. Luckily for viewers, the two cinematographers gave us some beautiful shots around the poor town and mountainous vistas.

When you hear the strings in the score, you roll your eyes at the heavy-handed nature of it all. That’s not to say some of the scenes don’t move you and it certainly has its heart in the right place.

Even though Hoosiers (which came out the year this story took place) has some of the same flaws, I have a soft spot in my heart for it. It had Gene Hackman as the coach, and my high school basketball coach (Hi Tim Cunningham) took us to see it instead of practice one day.

This movie instead veers too much into the Stand and Deliver (Edward James Almos) territory and like that movie, critics will be kind. It’s hard to knock a picture that’s a true story with a good message.

It gets 2 stars out of 5.