Have we reached the point where criticizing an underdog sports movie for being formulaic is just talking to a wall? It seems that way. After all, there’s only so many ways you can portray someone as an underdog before they cease to fit the definition. When you can trace a film’s outline from start to finish before the projector even rolls, and this goes for the filmmakers as well as the audience, what becomes important is not the story, but how it’s told; and how much emotion can be rung from it. Disney, a company that’s turned feel-good filmmaking into a science, keeps coming back with tender stories of overcoming the odds with togetherness and confidence. As for their newest outing, “McFarland, USA,” it’s not half bad.
The film stars Kevin Costner, now into the disgruntled middle-aged white guy phase of his career, who plays teacher and coach Jim White. After being fired from a series of jobs due to anger issues, he relocates his family to the entirely Latino town of McFarland, California. After he realizes that the football team is going nowhere, he gets the idea to form a cross country team after noticing that his students have to run everywhere. The impoverished students, meanwhile, struggle to balance their obligation to the team and their families, with all of them working in the fields to put food on the table.
Like I said, it runs through all the hoops you’d expect it to. The team initially forms out of reluctance and manipulation, and Costner struggles to connect to them. At first they lose to the teams of rich white kids. The one overweight runner finishes last until his shining moment at the very end. Eventually they start winning, and right before they reach the opportunity to seal the deal on their ascension, an unfortunate event occurs that brings everything into question, and before long the issue is resolved.
We’ve all seen this before, but the movie’s one stroke of originality is that the sport of focus is cross-country, atypical in the catalogue of sports films. A footrace is great fodder for an exciting scene when filmed and edited properly, and “MacFarland, USA’ does a solid job with that throughout.
What the film does right is giving a lot of individual attention to seven members of the team. We get to meet their families and their everyday struggles to get by. Due to the film’s family friendly tone, however, more serious moments like a parent hitting their child are implied rather than being shown. Still, “MacFarland” does offer a handful of riveting scenes, particularly when a character sits on an overpass contemplating suicide and Costner has to talk him down.
But for every sincere moment the film has, there’s one that is equally hokey. One scene where Costner takes the team to see the ocean for the first time is beautiful, but the following photo shoot scene where the team shows off new uniforms is an overdose of glistening Disney idealism.
Along the same vein is the film’s portrayal of poverty. The film tells us MacFarland is “one of the poorest towns in the country,” but that claim is often compromised. We only get one scene of a crime occurring. We don’t bear witness to anybody going hungry, not being able to pay their landlord or failing to obtain other necessities. One scene takes place at a quinceanera where a member of the team is wearing a suit. The same character tells us earlier that he can only afford one pair of shoes, a few sets of clothes, and drinks from a hose because he can’t afford to buy a soda. So how the hell does he have a suit?
The dialogue also feels subdued, particularly considering many of the characters are teenagers. The level of aggression is noticeably dialed down and the complete lack of even minor profanity makes the script less believable.
“MacFarland, USA” is a film where you know exactly what you’re in for. It’s a middle of the road family film. It’s warm and sweet, good for a few laughs, and leaves you smiling when the team takes home the top prize. Other films have done it better, but many more have done it worse. It’s definitely a movie you can watch with your mom, grandparents or younger sibling, and everyone will have a good enough time to make it worthwhile.