Directed by: Niki Caro.
Written by: Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois & Grant Thompson.
Starring: Kevin Costner (Jim White), Ramiro Rodriguez (Danny Diaz), Carlos Pratts (Thomas Valles), Johnny Ortiz (Jose Cardenas), Rafael Martinez (David Diaz), Hector Duran (Johnny Sameniego), Sergio Avelar (Victor Puentes), Michael Aguero (Damacio Diaz), Diana Maria Riva (Señora Diaz), Omar Leyva (Señor Diaz), Valente Rodriguez (Principal Camillo), Danny Mora (Sammy Rosaldo), Maria Bello (Cheryl White), Morgan Saylor (Julie White), Elsie Fisher (Jamie White).
I have seen my share of inspirational, Disney sports movies based on a true story before – and quite often, I have enjoyed them. Yes, they are all basically the same story – with a white man in need to redemption, who takes on the challenge of coaching a ragtag group of minority kids that no one believes in to do amazing things. The white coach always has an ulterior motive – usually, a better job, and his team will eventually find out and get mad at him for abandoning him – even though, of course, the coach learns what’s truly important by the end. The minorities – and doesn’t matter which minority, these movies treat them all the same – are all archetypes, and never presented with as much depth as the white coach – even while the movie preaches tolerance and understanding. Yes, these movies are mainly extremely cynical attempts to draw some tears from its audience, and yet, although the formula is the stalest imaginable, if done well, I still cannot help but be won over by them.
The latest film in this vein is McFarland – and its story is a checklist of those clichés, as disgraced football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) takes the only teaching job he can find – in McFarland, a town that is almost all Mexican immigrants, who make their living picking crops. White hates it there – is more than a little condescending to those in his new town – but slowly realizes that some of these Mexican kids can run! If he can make them into a star track team, maybe he can get them back to the life they are supposed to have. You know the rest.
The film is directed by Niki Caro – who has yet to match the promise of her debut film, Whale Rider (2002) – who, to give her credit, I think knows just how clichéd the whole project is, and tries her best to do something different with it. She, and the screenwriters, do try to present the Mexican kids – and their families – as real people, with real problems. And Costner continues his recent run of natural performances – he is so much better now that he is no longer a big movie star, and can now be what he is best at – a character actor.
But the clichés, and other problems, ultimately undoes most of the good intentions of the film itself. For one things, at over two hours, the film could have used a significant cut in the runtime – there is nothing inherently exciting about long distance running –and even less so about training for long distance running. The opening scenes in the film are dreadful – and it takes a while to recover. While parts of the movie seem to be trying to do something new with the familiar formula – most of it simply re-enforces the clichés in the genre.
McFarland is merely an adequate example of something Disney has done before – and far better. In a world where it seems like one of these movies is playing on cable at any hour of the day or night, there really is no reason to see to McFarland. Just wait for the next repeat of Remember the Titans or Miracle. They’ll be on any minute now.