I have to wonder if extremely low expectations play a role when watching McFarland, USA, which is better than you’d expect, although that’s probably not saying a whole lot. It’s an extremely generic inspirational sports movie, but since it’s not terrible — some of its emotional moments pay off, it’s got some laughs, and Kevin Costner turns in a good performance — it’ll wind up getting viewed as one of the better films in the genre. Its competition is so bad that it looks better by comparison. They’re its DUFFs.
Based on a true story — because of course it is — McFarland, USA follows Jim White as he gets fired from his comfortable coaching job and send him town to McFarland, California, a town populated almost exclusively by Hispanics. He’s the new gym, football, and life coach at the school, but after getting fired from the football job, he decides to become the cross-country running coach. Along the way, he changes the lives of the kids he coaches, as well as his own, all while he becomes an integral part of a community of which he at one point wanted no part.
Does this story sound familiar to you? It probably should, since it hits every beat that you’d expect it to with great precision. The difference, I guess, is that it does these things well. The students, for the most part, all have varying personalities so you can tell them apart. The race relations are handled better than you might expect, especially given the trailer, and the inspirational stuff is, well, inspirational.
It’s also incredibly predictable as a result. Gee, I wonder if the chubby kid will race his heart out in the final race in order to ensure the team does well. Of course he does! These types of movies are as predictable as — if not more so than — romantic comedies. They achieve largely the same result, too. For the cynical audience member, they’re predictable and boring; for most people, though, it winds up being heartwarming and fun, and has them coming away from the films feeling good about life, the world, and themselves.
The good ones warm the hearts of the cynics, and McFarland, USA is at least kind of close to being a good one. It works more often than it doesn’t, and since it runs for over two hours, it gives us more than enough character moments so that you might, just maybe, begin to care about these characters, even though you’re watching a movie about a true story you may already know because it happened in 1987. Yeah, I guess McFarland, USA is pretty effective, especially when compared to its peers, most of which I wind up immensely disliking.
When the film doesn’t work, it’s eye-rollingly bad. There’s a late-game … “development” which makes our protagonist question everything, and it feels thrown in just for some artificial tension. A subplot involving Jim and the relationship he has with his family — in particular his oldest daughter — doesn’t work at all, and there’s a lot of potential depth that gets skimmed over.
Kevin Costner is as relaxed as ever playing Jim White, who is a real person. Costner plays Coach White as a smart and sensitive person, but not as an interesting one. The kids on the running team all get distinct personalities and are played by actors you’ve never heard of and may never see again, although they certainly feel as if they really are poor kids in a small town. Maria Bello gets a nothing role as the wife, Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher play the children that make up the rest of the main family. They get little to do, too. It’s all on Costner’s shoulders, and he does a great job.
By simple virtue of not (for the most part), being eye-rollingly, cringeworthily bad, McFarland, USA is a “good” inspirational sports movie. It’s heartwarming, it’s funny, it has a good leading performance from Kevin Costner, and it’s at its best when it focuses on the small town of McFarland. It’s predictable, and it has a lot of side stories that don’t even come close to working, but for the most part, this is one of the more inspirational sports movies you can watch. If you’re jonesing for one of those, you can do a lot worse than McFarland, USA.