“McFarland, USA” stumbles, but manages to keep pace

Courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

Sometimes, a film is so formulaic that it becomes terrible. It’s a heavy-handed, predictable mess that plucks on your heartstrings like the world’s least accomplished violinist. I often have to remind myself, in trudging through the slew of video games, TV and movies that encompass my pop culture addiction, that many formulas are adopted, used and re-used into oblivion because they work.

“McFarland, USA” is a formulaic film. Right after Disney begun making waves in changing up their classical formula with movies like “Frozen” and “Maleficent,” they decided to make “McFarland, USA,” a terribly predictable and formulaic sports movie. However, while other films use their formularity to avoid doing any work, drawing in hordes of mindless drones who will shell out $8 to watch what amounts to grayish, mulchy cinematic gruel (I’m looking at you, Kevin James and Michael Bay), “McFarland, USA” follows a formula in telling an inspirational, heartwarming story that almost made me tear up at all of its quaint wholesomeness. Then again, it could have been the girl with the incredibly strong cologne behind me in the theater.

“McFarland, USA” tells the story of Jim White (Kevin Costner), a man who is destined to a life of absolute mediocrity after his parents gave him the least interesting name in the known universe. After he lets his temper get the best of him, he must find work in the town of McFarland, California, a town predominantly made up of Mexican-American “pickers,” who seem destined to a marginalizing life of harvesting produce in the Central Valley. He eventually discovers that the kids under his tutelage are talented runners, and he forms a cross-country running team. A few montages, inoffensive jokes and sports tropes later, everyone lives happily ever after, film done.

The film’s major failing, of which there aren’t many, is Kevin Costner. While “McFarland, USA” succeeds in telling an inspirational story about the cross-country team, many of whom don’t have aspirations at the beginning of the film, we’re forced to spend a majority of the movie’s extensive run time saddled with a boring protagonist. Every time the film seems to flirt with the idea of showing us the plight and struggles of the teens that should be the subject of the film, as they balance school, work and training in the face of an uncaring society, Costner has to show up, furrowing his brow and speaking entirely in sports cliches. I figure that this is to make the predominantly white, middle class audience that makes up the bulk of the flyover states less uncomfortable, but a focus on the more interesting characters in the film and their arcs would have been much more satisfying, instead of the bland protagonist we’re stuck with. The students in the film learn to believe in themselves, follow their dreams and find self-actualization in a society that regards them as throwaway people. Kevin Costner learns to have less of a temper and enjoy Mexican food. How inspiring.

With all that said, the film managed to surprise me in many ways. The bulk of the supporting actors are all extremely talented, and the film manages to stay relatively close to the actual story that inspired it, without being too mired in dramatization. It also manages to display the two differing cultures of Jim White and his Mexican-American students without relying too heavily on stereotypes or racialization. The characters actually feel like real people, with their own distinct personalities, which gives color and atmosphere to a film that would have bored me in almost any other case.

The camerawork is superb and functional, some of the jokes made me laugh and it ends with a climax that really stuck with me. Without trying to spoil anything, the reason “McFarland, USA” is a four instead of a two or three is how the filmmakers handled the ending. I was almost sure that the film was going to end with some message along the lines of, “Thank God the white man showed up and taught us to succeed. He’s the best.” However, “McFarland, USA” doesn’t and as a result it’s a fine film.

For all of its successes, I worry that “McFarland, USA” won’t make enough of an expression to stand the test of time. It’s a film surrounded on all sides by hugely budgeted, bloated beasts of films without artistic merit; monstrosities stitched together by the wretched creator that is the film industry, where artistic merit takes a back seat to generating buzz and maximizing profits. Then again, that could be the cynicism talking, as there was a massive turnout at the screening I saw. I hope the success of “McFarland, USA” continues. It truly deserves it.

Rating: 4 stars

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