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"McFARLAND, USA"
(2015) (Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A high school coach gets one last chance at redemption in one of the poorest towns in America where he tries to create a cross country team out of an unlikely assortment of students.
PLOT:
It's 1987 and Jim White (KEVIN COSTNER) is a high school teacher and coach who's nearly at the end of his job related options. Having lost his temper and injured one of his football players at his last school, he's now moved his family -- wife Cheryl (MARIA BELLO), nearly 15-year-old daughter Julie (MORGAN SAYLOR), and her younger sister, Jamie (ELSIE FISHER) -- to the impoverished town of McFarland, California. He's managed to get a job there at the local high school teaching life sciences and PE, while also serving as the assistant football coach for a team that's quite horrible.

After getting canned from the latter position and noting that some of the boys are quite fast and show lots of stamina while running, he comes up with the idea to create a cross country team despite having no experience doing so and notwithstanding the fact that none of the students has ever competitively run. Nonetheless, he manages to convince the principal and gets seven students -- Thomas (CARLOS PRATTS), Johnny (HECTOR DURAN), Victor (SERGIO AVELAR), Jose (JOHNNY ORTIZ) and the Diaz brothers, David (RAFAEL MARTINEZ), Danny (RAMIRO RODRIGUEZ) and Damacio (MICHAEL AGUERO) -- to form his team.

Most of them work picking vegetables on large farms just like their parents and other family members, and that seems to be the most likely future for most of them, unless they end up in prison like Victor's cousin, Javi (RIGO SANCHEZ), who's only recently gotten out. Jim is determined to change that, and despite the long odds and facing other high school teams that are better financed and prepared, he enters his squad into various races.

At the same time, he and his family come to know and be accepted like family by many of the town's various residents, which is a welcome development following their shaky start there. As the races continue and the boys start to prove their prowess at the sport, Jim finds redemption and happiness in helping make a change in their lives and the town in which they live.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Hollywood might be where magic is made and creativity runs rampant. But it's also a business and studios and filmmakers fully realize there's gold in them thar hills if they make films the public wants to see that also feature material they're familiar with and already enjoy watching on TV or in person.

That's one of the main reasons why there are a great deal more movies about football than, say, badminton. The same holds true for baseball as compared to many less popular sports, including swimming, lacrosse and track and field. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, not that there's anything wrong with those sports and those who engage in or watch them.

It's just the reality of the biz. Case in point -- try to name five films where competitive running is the main subject matter, unlike say the relatively minor coverage of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini in "Unbroken." For most people, the first and maybe only pic that will come to mind is "Chariots of Fire," and most of that likely stems from the iconic signature moment of slow motion running along the beach as set to Vangelis' memorable score.

No such signature music occurs in "McFarland, USA," a rare entry in the sports genre that, yes, is about track and field. Based on a true story of a troubled coach who arrived in the titular location and managed to turn around the lives of a number of high school student under his guidance, the film is unlikely to spark a sudden rush of copycat films as its box office potential seems questionable at best. But it's a decent offering that benefits from having Kevin Costner as its lead and a number of charismatic performers showing up in the supporting roles as the high school runners.

If not for the fact that it's based on a true story -- when coach Jim White showed up in McFarland and kicked off the first of many state championship years in a high school never previously known for running -- it would seem like another Hollywood white-washing, if you will. You know, where the white hero saves the day for a group of minorities and is the focus of the story rather than them (see also "Glory," "The Last Samurai" and other such flicks).

Screenwriter Grant Thompson also delivers the usual sports drama conventions including the coach learning as much from his athletes as they do about him, while also reconnecting with his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher). Similarly, and as to be expected of a film arriving from this genre, there are more training montages than one can shake a relay baton at, and the film does feel just a tad long with director Niki Caro (who made the terrific "Whale Rider" more than a decade ago) having it cross the finish line at nearly 130 minutes.

All of that said, and notwithstanding some late in the game conflict and high drama that feel a bit shoehorned just to raise the stakes, the film still manages to work. As is often the case, Costner -- certainly no stranger to appearing in sports related films -- feels right for the role and believably creates a flawed but sympathetic and likable protagonist. Bello is decent as his long-suffering wife, and Saylor gets a nicely played moment as a teen being overwhelmed by her new community coming together to celebrate her 15th birthday, Mexican style.

Those playing the boys -- Carlos Pratts, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez and Michael Aguero -- are good as well and feel authentic for the parts, with a few (most notably Pratts) getting a bit more screen time and focus on their character's lives. That includes another sports drama cliché, the underdog kids living in an impoverished place where dreams of a better future die in the light of reality, but it likewise feels true for this tale.

While there's really not much new here -- aside from playing in a sport that rarely gets the time of day in Hollywood -- "McFarland, USA" hits enough of a decent stride to go the distance and deliver enough of a winning edge to rate as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed January 29, 2015 / Posted February 20, 2015


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