Published On: Sun, Feb 22nd, 2015

‘McFarland USA’ Movie Review: uplifting Disney film with rehashed story

The simplest way to describe McFarland USA is as an underdog sports story.

We’re all very familiar with the formula: nobody thinks the athletes (in this case, cross country runners) are good enough (even the athletes themselves), there’s some kind of personal hurdle to overcome, and an inspirational coach who usually has his eyes opened and preconceived notions dismissed as he leads his team to great victory. The cherry on top is the little detail of “based on a true story”.

McFarland USA movie posterYou know you’re going to like it. It’s the type of film that everyone leaves feeling uplifted and ready to take on challenges and show the world what they’re made of. It’s no surprise to hear a character say, “It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight. It’s about the size of the fight in the dog.”

So, you could easily wait for this one to come out as a rental. No need to race out to see it (pun intended). That is, if you’re only interested in the sports story. But if you look past the element of athletics, then the film moves to a different level which will probably escape most of the audience.

McFarland is a very poor, small town in California mainly populated by Mexican-American families who make their livings as agricultural pickers. It’s not the prettiest or safest place to be. Culturally, it doesn’t even feel like it’s located in the US. As Coach White’s family pulls into town, the youngest daughter even asks, “Are we in Mexico?” Am I setting the tone now?

There are many culturally-driven jokes throughout the film that many would say are inoffensive, but I don’t think everyone will feel that way. It’s a Disney film, but not a fairy tale. The offensive comments reflect the true attitudes of the 1987 individuals portrayed in the film. That’s what takes this film to another level. Saying that the Mexican kids aren’t used to running unless there’s “a cop behind them or a Taco Bell in front of them” is definitely offensive……but such comments also shed light on the ignorance of the “traditional Americans” depicted in the film.

As the story progresses, there are many scenes taking the viewer and Coach White into the homes of his runners. As I watched the film, I wondered if this would be the first time much of the audience had even wondered about such differences.

One point were Disney dropped the ball is in the casting of the film. Kevin Costner is certainly the box-office draw and the entire cast did a great job.

However, the final scene introduces us to the real-life individuals portrayed and it glaringly stands out that the young actors were all of darker complexions. Had they taken this opportunity to cast a wider variety of complexions that would be more reflective of the true individuals, it would have driven home the point of the cultural differences and biases more strongly.

After the last scene, I felt as if they missed the mark and allowed skin color to play too much of a role in the film and overshadow the role of culture a bit too much. (I will confess to the reader that I am an extremely fair skinned Cuban-American who frequently hears, “Really? You’re Latin?”)

Overall, McFarland USA is a good film: good use of the sports story formula, good job by the actors, and the story is inspirational and appropriate for all audiences. You’ll walk out cheering “McFarland!” like the audience did at my viewing. And if you’re at all like me, you’ll shed a few tears, too.

McFarland USA receives 3 out of 5 stars

Guest Reviewer: Debbie Sage

Directed by Niki Caro, the film also stars Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Martha Higareda, Michael Aguero, Sergio Avelar, Hector Duran, Rafael Martinez, Johnny Ortiz, Carlos Pratts, Ramiro Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Valente Rodriguez, Vanessa Martinez, Chelsea Rendon and Chris Ellis.


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