I don’t know why, but I picture a little office hidden deep in the bowels of the Walt Disney Company where a little man with glasses sits every day and reads 150 small town newspapers every day, looking for just the right story that will make a great movie. Whether it’s the story of bartender turned pro-football player Vince Papale in “Invincible” or high school coach Jimmy Morris striking out batters in the major leagues in “The Rookie,” the people at Disney know what people like. Winners. And “McFarland, USA” crosses the finish line in first place.
Jim White (Costner) is a high school football coach with a temper. After a poor performance in the first half of a game, White scolds his team in the locker room. When his quarterback doesn’t seem to be getting the message, White throws a shoe at him. The shoe bounces off a locker and hits the young man in the face. Say it with me: “You’re fired!” Needing a new gig, White moves his family to the small, migrant heavy town of McFarland, California. He again runs into trouble when, as an assistant football coach, he refuses to put a player back in the game after a big hit. He’s doing the right thing but his actions rile the head coach, who has him dismissed. In his PE class white notices many of the young boys he sends to run laps return quickly and not out of breath. He learns that these boys have a stamina born from working many hours in the fields, both before and after school. White gets an idea. In order to keep his teaching gig, and earn the extra money that coaching provides, White decides to put together a cross-country running team. But getting the boys to buy in to the experiment is another thing all together.
A “Hispanic ‘Hoosiers’”, and I mean that with all due respect, “McFarland, USA” is an uplifting film that hits the right notes. This could have easily been a stereotypical “white coach shows up and changes the minority athlete’s lives” story but it is, in fact, much more. The first sign of prejudice we see is from White and his family. From their reluctance to eat dinner at a Mexican restaurant to White’s overprotective actions when a group of tricked-out cars drive by, it becomes clear that the only problem here is White’s attitude. He learns to temper these thoughts by getting to know the boys, and their families. While the parents are impressed that this could be a way for the boys to escape the fields and possibly attend college, they must also come to grips with the knowledge that every hour the boys are at practice is an hour not spent in the field. And this situation affects the whole family. Only after White volunteers to go to work with the boys one morning do we really see the work ethic required to do the job needed. It is a teaching moment unlike any other for the coach.
On the performance front, this is Costner’s second strong performance this year. Like Gene Hackman’s Coach Dale in “Hoosiers,” Jim White is a flawed man with a passion. And that passion comes through quietly in Costner’s performance. Whether he’s eating a plate full of enchiladas at a runner’s house or pacing the boys while they run, sitting on the seat of his daughter’s high-handled “Barbie” bike, his willingness to teach, and learn, is visible. Among the young runners, Rodriguez’ Danny Diaz is the most complete character. The plot almost takes a turn into maudlin territory (Coach White’s daughter begins seeing one of the team members, a gang altercation takes place)) but director Caro manages to keep her eye on the prize and steers the film back to where it needs to go. If you’re looking for a story that will inspire long after the final credits, then go see “McFarland, USA.” And keep an eye out for the local newspaper!