Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 31, 2015)
I won’t say that Disney specializes in feel-good sports stories but… actually, I will say that. Of course, they don’t own that franchise, but with flicks like Miracle and Million Dollar Arm under their collective wing, the studio seems to embrace those topics more than others might.
Disney adds another in this line with 2015’s McFarland USA. Based on a true story, the film takes us to Idaho circa 1987 and introduces us to high school football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner). When he chastises his team for a poor performance, he accidentally injures an arrogant player.
Because of this, Jim loses his job and takes up new employment at a high school in McFarland, California. With his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) in tow, they struggle to fit within this heavily Latino community.
As he works with his students, Jim discovers potential talent. Jim recruits brothers David (Rafael Martinez), Damacio (Michael Aguero) and Danny Diaz (Rodrigo Ramirez) as well as Jose Cardenas (Johnny Ortiz), Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar), Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran) and Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) for a cross-country running team. We follow their progress as well as how Jim’s family adapts to the setting and other personal areas.
Going into a movie like McFarland, the viewer can’t expect anything new or especially original. As I mentioned at the start, Disney cornered the market on the “plucky underdog sports movie”, and these tend to follow well-established paths, especially when they get into culture clash territory ala McFarland. As we watch the underrated athletes progress, we also see folks from different backgrounds bond.
So don’t expect McFarland to offer surprises, as it doesn’t. Virtually everything about the movie traces story and character routes that one can see coming from a mile away.
This means that the value of a film like McFarland comes from how well it executes its story and character areas. Does it create an involving experience with interesting personalities? Yeah, to a degree - McFarland offers just enough drama to keep us with it, but it doesn’t manage anything to make it stand out from its particular crowd.
Costner does fine as our lead, though he never breaks a sweat. Apparently Costner decided to make 2015 his year for movies about culture clash, as McFarland comes hot on the heels of Black or White, another film with racial overtones. Costner gives his character a good sense of strength and he helps ground a cast that focuses on younger, much less experienced actors, but he doesn’t offer work that requires him to leave his comfort zone.
The same goes for everything about McFarland. The story takes a well-trod path, as it alternates between sports issues and personal domains, with occasional intersection, of course. We see odds overcome and personal challenges confronted.
At times it feels like McFarland does little more than check off those boxes. While it’s hard for a movie like this to break out of the established mold, I would’ve liked McFarland to try harder. If any surprises show up in this film, I can’t find them.
That doesn’t make it a bad movie, of course, but the lack of ambition turns McFarland into a fairly average piece. The movie offers just enough drama to keep us with it, but doesn’t create something dynamic or memorable within its genre.