McFarland, USA would seem to be your standard run-of-the-mill tale about a rag-tag band of underdogs that nobody believed in, only to come from behind at the end to prove everybody wrong. To a certain extent that would be true. The difference is in the fabrication; how well the piece is put together. McFarland is indeed really good. What separates this from a lesser film of this sort is in the sincerity of the story. There’s an honesty to the performances that draws you in to the plight of these kids. Let’s start with star Kevin Costner who plays a world weary coach that is on the outs, trying start a new life with his family. Compare that to the athletes who attend a school that has never excelled in athletics. That is until they decide to add cross country to their roster of sports. The young actors have a lot of heart. The script allows enough time to detail their individual stories. It gives us a reason to care. Their separate goals but shared ambitions unite in a very appealing way that adds weight to this chronicle.
Despite utilizing the conventional plot points of the sports drama, McFarland, USA doesn’t suffer for it. On location shooting in Kern County, California, imbues the production with a grit that it wouldn’t have if it been filmed on a Hollywood lot. The Latin tinged soundtrack with a score by Antonio Pinto additionally adds to the chronicle’s credibility. Spanish guitar pops up in several compositions. The townspeople are portrayed by people who don’t look like they were hired out of central casting. Some would even appear to be genuine citizens of the town. Kevin Costner and Maria Bello are an exception but that‘s perhaps a concession to box office. He and his family provide an interesting contrast to the townspeople. Granted the idea of a white savior to these economically disadvantaged teens could have been a cliché. I would argue that it is his down and out coach that is more “saved” by these students.
Can a movie be completely predictable and still be entertaining? With McFarland, USA the answer is an unqualified yes. I will admit that the narrative follows the familiar beats of inspirational sports dramas. Disney has made an industry of this genre. Remember the Titans, Cool Runnings, The Rookie, Miracle – they’re all examples of how this subject has been done many times before. In these cases, it’s been accomplished successfully. The variation to formula in this case is cross country track. Okay so that’s a minor difference, but the picture has an authenticity to it. McFarland, USA is an genuinely heartfelt story worth revisiting. I feel compelled to justify why I enjoyed this. Those viewers who already find these traditional tales difficult to enjoy, will not be taken in by this film’s simple charms. However of you’re open to a nicely acted production that makes you feels good, you should give this a try.