McFarland USA could have been just another “poor kids make good,” movie.
It is that, but it’s a lot more, too.
Set in 1987, McFarland USA is the story of Coach Jim White who takes a job as an assistant football coach in a dusty and dreary spot in the middle of California. If you’ve driven Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno, you’ve driven through McFarland. You probably didn’t stop though. It’s a small town, populated by mostly migrant farmworkers. The people work hard and barely make ends meet. Education is sometimes sacrificed to the need to eat and put food on the table.
Coach White has … ummm … “anger management,” issues and he knows McFarland is his last stop before he has to find another way to support his family, other than coaching. Sure enough, he crosses the head football coach and is relieved of his coaching duties. He can still stay and teach, but he wants to do more. He’s a coach. Some people are born singers, or whittlers, or bakers. White is a coach.
He notices that several of the kids in his PE class can run. They carb load on rice and beans all day, they work in the fields before school, and then they run. White proposes a cross country team to the principal.
Because McFarland USA is billed as a feel-good sports movie, you can pretty much figure out the rest of the story. They start running. They place and win some meets. Then they make it to the state cross country championships.
The movie is well-written, well-cast, and well-acted. There were a few cringe-ish moments, but overall, it’s not sentimental, it applauds hard work, both in the field and on the track. Stud Muffin did not like the quinceañera scene, but I was okay with it. He’s right, it was nothing like a real quinceañera, but in the movie, it was a gringo celebration, so it didn’t bother me.
Kevin Costner hit the right notes as a man who knows he’s staring unemployment in the face if he can’t figure out how to get out of his own way. He respects the kids and their parents and the hard life they live without complaint. Maria Bello is excellent as his wife, with a nice mix of exasperation and devotion to her husband.
Our beautiful bride daughter works in McFarland and her building has a small part in the movie. The market and taco shop which are featured heavily, are across the street from her office. Filming was a big deal for the town and its residents. They are justly proud of their cross country team, their coach, and now, their story.