Movie Review: ‘McFARLAND, USA’ Crosses the Finish Line With Flying Colors

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Preston Barta // Editor


McFARLAND, USA | 128 min | Rated PG
Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts and Morgan Saylor

When it comes to Disney sport films, critics tend to roll their eyes. All too often does Disney play it too safe and try to manipulate our emotions, but hey, their films are made to be seen by a wide audience. So you can’t expect a lot of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. However, since this is a family-friendly zone, McFARLAND, USA is about as good as sports films get.

The story is as follows: After an incident, Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) finds himself having to move his family to the only job at the only school that would hire him. He has his doubts about the town (insert movie title), but after some time goes by he notices that the students of McFarland High School have a unique potential. They may not have the talent to lead a football team, but they can run. So Coach White forms a cross country team and transforms the students into championship contenders.

Costner is a dependable actor for the most part, especially movies with sports set as the background. Even when his movies are terrible, and Costner has been in some terrible movies, he always brings such charm and heart to his roles. When you think about some of the sports films he has done, what makes them so memorable is the fact that there is more to them than a sports team trying to achieve greatness or the game itself. 1988’s BULL DURHAM was more than just about baseball; it was about love and life. Same goes for TIN CUP (1996), FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME (1999) and even last year’s DRAFT DAY.

Center, Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) and his cross country team. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Center, Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) and his cross country team. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Now, under the wing of filmmaker Niki Caro (WHALE RIDER, NORTH COUNTRY), Costner gives one his most earnest performances in quite sometime. His Coach White is very grounded and human. You can feel his frustration and why he slips when he does, especially at the film’s start, when trying to motivate a football team. He shows us the various facets of his character– a coach, a father, a neighbor and a mentor. And no, I’m not doing Steve Carell’s speech from FOXCATCHER (2014); Costner is just that kind of character: someone for the students of McFarland to look up to and follow.

While Costner carries the film in a big way, much of the film’s strength comes from the runners themselves and their unique, individual stories. They each work hard, get up before dawn and support their families by working in the fruit fields. It offers a powerful immersion into their culture and taxing lifestyle that is part of their work.

McFARLAND, USA could have easily been rendered a clichéd portrayal, but Caro has a careful hand that poignantly depicts the harsh reality of life in a migrant community and showcases an awe-inspiring story about a town that came together and had hope. Of the new additions this week, this may be the good-hearted film to see.

McFARLAND, USA is playing in theaters today.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.