Photo Credit: Ron Phillips/Disney
In 1987 Boise, Idaho, high school football coach Jim White threw an athletic shoe at a player whose ego far outweighed his measure of respect. The shoe bounced off of a locker and on to his face, drawing blood. Upon watching this scenario unfold, you intuitively know this is the end of the road for Coach White, at least at this particular school. This locker room scene serves as the opening for the film “McFarland, USA.”
“McFarland USA” is based on the real-life story of coach Jim White (portrayed by Academy Award-winner Kevin Costner). White ends up taking a job as a physical education teacher at the only school who is willing to hire him, McFarland High School. He packs up his wife and two young daughters and reluctantly transitions out of middle class Idaho and into a California community heavily populated by poor Mexican field workers dubbed “Pickers.”
White discovers that a great number of his students also work in the fields before coming to school, with their only mode of transportation being the strength of their own two legs and feet. They run. In particular are the three Diaz brothers: David, Damacio, and Danny. White approaches the principal of the school with the idea of developing a team of cross country runners. The principle resists the proposal but acquiesces after White proves to him that there is state funding for the sport.
White and his team of untried runners meet with their share of trials. The state of California is brimming over with tried and proven cross country runners from the most elite schools. But White presses on. He realizes after their first run and subsequent loss that he himself had failed the boys by not scoping out the course prior to their run. He realizes that his best runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts) could have edged out his opponents had he been properly trained for uphill challenges. With this is mind, he takes the boys onto a yard of colossal almond mounds where they proceed to get their uphill training. It pays off as the boys unexpectedly win the next meet.
The success of the McFarland boys is pretty much immediate. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, White begins to encourage the boys that the future is ripe with opportunities for them as they continue to gain ground as an up-and-coming cross country team. Eventually the young McFarland cross country novices end up qualifying for the state championships.
Along the way White and his family not only adjust and acclimate to their new surroundings, but they soon enough come to appreciate the rich culture of the community. White even works with the community to throw a surprise quinceanera celebration for his 15-year-old daughter after missing the family celebration on her actual birthday due to being preoccupied with his runners.
The quinceanera celebration goes slightly awry, but subsequently serves to cement White’s ties to the community, so much so that White continues to call the Mexican community of McFarland his home even today. Ten years into his retirement from coaching the cross country team, Jim White still lives in the very same house that he and his family reluctantly moved into nearly 30 years ago. His dedication fashioned a poor community of farm workers into a community of national heroes, many of whom went on to graduate college and give back to the McFarland community.
Costner’s portrayal of White is muted and charming. His on-screen presence alone anchors this production. 60-year-old Costner has transitioned from a handsome, young ’80s heartthrob to an maturing artist who seems comfortable in his own skin. He isn’t sporting obvious plastic surgery nor hair pieces for this thinning hair. He’s refreshing to watch onscreen and remains as sexy as he was in “The Untouchables”, “Field of Dreams”, and “Bull Durham.”
Maria Bello co-stars as Jim’s wife Cheryl. While her part in this production is small, her performance is potent and the character is an essential component of the White family dynamic. Like Costner, Bello too seems to progress on in her career as an ageless beauty. She’s a solid performer who jives well alongside Costner.
“McFarland,USA” is indeed a feel-good story that champions the underdog. We’ve seem them all before. That being said, “McFarland, USA” is warm without being overly schmaltzy. It remains a production that is thoroughly laced with enough testosterone for men to enjoy without having to be dragged into the theaters by their girlfriends in order to see it. Women as well will find favor with the side storyline involving Cheryl White and their young daughters. This includes a blossoming romance between White’s oldest daughter Julie (the lovely Morgan Saylor) and his star runner, Thomas.
Rated PG and running for a comfortable 129 minutes, “McFarland, USA” is well worth the price of admission.