The lovely “McFarland, USA” hits the expected mile markers on the inspirational-sports-movie path while slowing down enough to craft a rich portrait of a place and its inhabitants.
Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) uses the real-life origin story of a champion 1980s Kern County cross country team to highlight the day-to-day work and familial obligations of farmworkers. As a glimpse into this way of life, “McFarland” offers more insight than “Cesar Chavez,” the biopic of the great labor leader released last year.
That’s partly because “Chavez,” though set in McFarland’s neighbor city Delano, was shot mostly in Mexico. Caro shot in the real McFarland, casting locals in key roles and bringing an authenticity to the film that will spark recognition in anyone who grew up in a rural Central Valley town.
It’s all there: the neat rows of almond trees and rose bushes, and the spare, dusty feel of the parts of town removed from agriculture irrigation – shade-starved streets filled with small stucco 1970s houses.
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When newly hired McFarland High School teacher and coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), his wife (Maria Bello, underused in the grand tradition of coaches’ wife roles apart from Mrs. Coach on “Friday Night Lights”) and their two daughters first enter McFarland, by way of Boise, Idaho, they see Mexican markets and restaurants and feel out of place. How this town will win them over, and vice versa, forms the heart of “McFarland, USA.”
Costner by this point wears sports-movie roles as a second skin. That skin is tanned and a bit leathery, and here carries a slight smell of failure. His character is a quarter-decade older than Crash Davis and still foundering in the most minor of leagues.
The coach’s stints at previous schools were brief, because he displayed a temper with players. As McFarland High’s pragmatic principal (Valente Rodriguez) tells White, McFarland is his last chance.
Establishing White as down on his luck prevents “McFarland” from being the usual white-savior tale of a coach/teacher in the rough inner city. First off, McFarland lacks an inner city. And here it’s the coach who finds a purpose, through the tenacious boys who compete for him.
Rather than give a star turn, Costner hangs back. He serves as a vessel for the story of the team, composed of boys who wake up with the chickens, work the fields, go to school and then run many miles after school.
Caro’s camera follows the boys as they pile onto trucks with other workers, then bend over all day picking lettuce, to help support their families. Caro presents this element as being neither unfair to the teens nor especially noble of them. That everyone contributes is a fact of their economic lives.
The movie takes a looser attitude toward the facts of the 1987 McFarland cross country season, on which this film focuses. “McFarland” presents cross country at the high school as if it were White’s idea.
Hired as assistant football coach but dismissed after a dust-up with the head coach, White notices how fast some boys in his P.E. class are. He also spots a youngster named Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts, from FX’s “The Bridge”) doing five-minute miles while running through farm fields in his school clothes.
The principal resists White’s lightbulb-moment idea that the school establish a cross country team. Such “country club” sports are for private schools, the principal says. In reality, Latino kids from Valley farm communities, including McFarland, had excelled in the sport for years.
Valles was a standout runner for McFarland two years before the events in “McFarland, USA” take place. In the movie, White must cajole a reluctant Thomas into joining the new team.
“McFarland” also presents teams from richer schools as condescending caricatures. Mostly, though, Caro avoids cliché while building an inviting picture of the town, where the runners’ families warm to the Whites, opening their homes and insist the coach’s 15-year-old daughter, Julie (Morgan Saylor, toning it down from when she played Brody’s daughter on “Homeland”) get her own quinceañera.
Julie has a crush on Thomas, who is an appealing, complex character. Pratts sometimes came off as a nag as Demian Bichir’s son on “The Bridge” (see: Saylor on “Homeland.”). Here he exudes star power and covers a big emotional range as a teen who loves running but who sometimes does not see the point, since “pickers” like him rarely go on to do anything else.
Amid all this context and culture, running scenes, which take up perhaps a third of the film’s two-hour length, can seem secondary. But they engage and invigorate when they do happen. Caro uses interesting angles and also employs a secret weapon heretofore underused in films about long-distance runners: physical bulk.
Pratts is stocky for someone playing a star distance runner. But his body type works in the movie’s favor. Scenes of Thomas passing skinny runners excite more because such moves clearly take effort.
Real-life McFarland resident Ramiro Rodriguez, who plays Thomas’ teammate Danny, is even stockier. He’s also a big-screen natural. As his teammates and coach remark on his weight, Danny chugs along, finishing every training run and race, never quitting.
Go see “McFarland, USA” just for the highly satisfying sight of a chubby kid visibly accelerating while running up a hill.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
CAST: Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Ramiro Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Niki Caro
Rated PG (thematic material, some violence and language)