Disgraced coach takes a job in a dead-end small town, where he discovers his team seems untalented and unmotivated. Trials and tribulations ensue, but thanks to pluck, hard work and great motivational speeches, the boys surprise everyone and win the state championship.
We’ve seen this movie before, right?
Back in the day it was called “Hoosiers,” a film that became a beloved classic. Now it’s titled “McFarland, USA,” starring Kevin Costner as the coach who teaches a group of downtrodden Mexican-American kids to be the best they can be. Not surprisingly, it’s totally irresistible.
Based on the true story of Jim White (Costner), director Niki Caro’s (“Whale Rider”) film works as both inspirational sports drama and quasi-documentary ethnic anthem. That’s because the story is based in McFarland, Calif., a small, predominantly Mexican-American agricultural community, where many of the high school students work as pickers in the fields before and after classes.
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This presents a problem for Coach White, who can’t seem to keep some of his students from ducking out of class to go to work. But when he notices during a PE class that a few of his kids can run really fast over long distances, he convinces seven of them to form the school’s first cross-country team.
From here on in, there’s an inevitability about the film, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. In the downtrodden-become-champs sports genre, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. So “McFarland, USA” has the requisite plot points – coach clashes with star athlete (an outstanding Carlos Pratts) and suspicious parents; coach deals with the racial condescension of wealthier schools; coach has a crisis of confidence, etc. So when the McFarland Cougars win the state championship (in fact, they won nine over the next 14 years), it’s no big surprise, but it sure is gratifying.
What makes “McFarland, USA” stand out among its peers, however, are two exceedingly strong elements: the respect the film shows for its Latino community and another outstanding Kevin Costner performance. Caro does not stint on showing how difficult and without hope these kids’ lives can be, but she also portrays how hard these people work, the warmth of family life and the vibrancy of their culture. And in Costner she has a leading man who seems the essence of integrity and strength. With Gene Hackman retired, Costner is now the go-to guy for roles of this sort, and no one does them better.
“McFarland, USA” is filled with some surprising scenes that are not often found in movies of this ilk, including one in which White takes his team to see the ocean for the first time, and another in which he goes out to work with them in the fields and discovers how tough life can be. If nothing else, this solid picture is, despite its genre clichés, a testament to a great coach working under adverse conditions, and a hard-working community desperate to better itself. Uplift doesn’t come much better than this.