MCFARLAND, USA review by Rahul Vendantam – Kevin Costner leads a familiar-but-fun sports film

MCFARLAND, USA review by Rahul Vendantam – Kevin Costner leads a familiar-but-fun sports film


Two weeks ago, SEVENTH SON made me begin to lose faith in my philosophy that a formulaic movie can be good; it followed a basic hero’s journey in a fantasy setting, yet still couldn’t command any attention from me. MCFARLAND, USA has restored my confidence in the simple movie structure.

Inspired by a true story in 1987, this is the classic feel good sports movie. Football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) is forced to move to “almost Mexico” California after an incident with a student. Finding it difficult to adapt to the new Latino culture and almost nonexistent football program, he can’t wait to find a way out. But upon discovering his students’ ability to run, he embarks on a new endeavor as a cross country coach to change seven rag tag students into state champions. Along the way, he bonds with not only his students but the Latino culture and the town of McFarland itself.

The historical basis of the movie does not save it from falling into clichés, to the point where it deserves questioning how much was changed from reality as so many plot points fall into the sports movie outline. For example, the star runner quits the team at the climax of the second act only to rejoin after a heart to heart with the coach, and the underdog worst runner drops huge time during the final race to save the team. The most obvious offender is the shoehorned relationship between the star runner and the coach’s daughter. Every scene they have together feels forced and unnecessary. A quinceañera sequence runs along at smooth pace as it shows the coach becoming closer with the community, but grinds to halt as we watch the two kids talk and exchange small gifts. It’s the most annoying aspect of the movie, but luckily those scenes are few and far between.

Still, all these clichés work to form a quality film, lead mainly by the focus on individual characters. Each of the seven runners gets a colorful family and look into their personal lives. The Latino town doesn’t end up being a gimmick for flavor, but bases for the characters we see are its denizens. When the coach visits the plantation to experience the work his runners do each morning, it comes off as a sincere learning moment between the two. Montages of kids running across California’s desert look good, and the camera never fails to effectively get inside each character’s head. Costner does a wonderful job as Coach Jim White, and his slow transition into his new life is reflected well in his acting. The same, however, cannot be said for the runners. While the star runner (Carlos Pratts) eventually delivers his lines with some consistency, the others actors end up all placing their characters in the funny, snooty, teenager position, one which does not work for all of them.

Despite all its faults MCFARLAND USA works. It doesn’t pretend that it’s more than a feel good film, and stands on colorful characters rather than a standard plot. Secondary characters are always available for a quality one-liner, primary characters create the feeling that these races are in fact special, and Costner delivers a solid performance to hold everything together. Simplicity is this production’s game, and the town of McFarland would be proud.

MCFARLAND, USA opens on February 20, 2014

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