Not all that long ago, a buddy of mine watched the original Rocky for the first time. One of the things he didn’t like about it, he said, were all the sports movie clichés. I had to explain to him that if sports movie clichés are a disease, then Rocky is Typhoid Mary. The incredible underdog facing ridiculous odds, the training montage, the film’s climax at some version of The Big Game, all of those tropes more or less began with Rocky Balboa in 1976.
Before I get into discussing the new Disney sports movie (This seems to be becoming more of a tradition for them.), I have to admit that I am a sucker for this genre. The expected beats that virtually every sports movie has are like comfort food for me. You know they’re coming a mile out, but if they are well executed, then their utter predictability doesn’t really matter. They play me like a grand piano, and I don’t even mind it.
Case in point: Rudy, one of the genuinely great sports movies of all time. Before he can get accepted to Notre Dame to play football for the Irish, Rudy must first go to junior college. At the end of each semester, he applies to Notre Dame, and each semester he receives a rejection letter from them. The film makes it very clear that Notre Dame doesn’t take senior transfers, so after his fourth semester of junior college, Rudy receives a letter from Notre Dame. The movie is about a guy who walks on at Notre Dame. We know this is his last chance to get in. The process of elimination tells us what going to happen next as surely as it tells us Colonel Mustard did it in the conservatory with the lead pipe. Rudy sits down on a park bench and opens the letter. We already know he’s gotten in. He reads the letter out loud to himself and starts to cry. The camera pans around behind him, exposing the Golden Dome in the background. It’s a beautiful shot and a wildly effective scene, even though everybody in the house knows what’s coming. Sometimes, it’s all in the execution. Sometimes, it’s all about how well the piano is being played.
For the most part, McFarland, USA played me like a grand piano.
Once again, Disney is dipping into the real-life well to tell the story of an unlikely champion. It’s good that these movies tend to be based on real event, because they are sometimes so unlikely as to never be believable. Costner stars as Jim White, a high school football coach at the end of his professional rope. We find out in the film’s truly atrocious opening scene that Coach White gets fired a lot due to his hot-tempered nature. He winds up in McFarland, California, a poverty stricken farming town on the outskirts of Bakersfield.
First of all, Kevin Costner was put on Earth to be in movies like this. There’s just an authenticity that he continues to bring now that he has aged out of playing the athlete and very comfortably into playing the coach. I’ve always been a fan, and he’s just terrific at grounding the film. The always fine Maria Bello provides sturdy support as Coach White’s wife.
It doesn’t take long for Coach White to be removed from the football coaching staff. One day he realizes how fast a lot of his students are as he sees them running from school to the fields where they work. Though he’s never coached it before, White proposes starting a cross country team. If you’ve seen a movie before, you know that his runners will teach Coach White as much as he teaches them, but most of it works like a charm. There are only a few moments where the movie kind of goes off the rails.
The kids are all very good, and it’s cool to see that the casting director actually hired actors that look like high school kids. I grow weary of 28 year olds being passed off as kids not old enough to have drivers licenses. Andrew Garfield, you’re great, but you’re way too old for high school.
Whale Rider director Niki Caro makes a great choice to really immerse the film in its Hispanic culture, and she has figured out a way to shoot a cross country meet (a 3.2-mile course) and make it look dramatically compelling.
This is a movie that will likely be seen by a lot of kids, so I am thrilled by how much it immerses the audience in Mexican culture and how it vividly depicts the backbreaking labor these workers perform. I have two nephews aged 13 and 9, and I’m hopeful they will see this and realize how good they’ve got it in their suburban American life, where a sense of entitlement is almost unavoidable. One of the great things art can accomplish is to demonstrate other lives, which leads to greater levels of empathy. The outward message of McFarland, USA is the typical sports movie rah-rah about hard work and achievement, and there’s nothing wrong with those sentiments. But, there’s a lot more going on under the surface, a slightly more subversive look at how the other half lives and how hard it is for the working poor to rise out of poverty. As one father tells Coach White, every hour his son is training for cross country is an hour he isn’t working to help support the family. How in the world can kids grow up into a life that’s more accomplished than their parents, when the family is dependent on them to work at such a young age, to go to the fields pre-dawn, go to school all day, and then work more until dark? As the old saying goes, it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t have any boots.
I think the film makes a misstep by making Coach White the main character of the film. Disney had a similar problem last year with Million Dollar Arm, which told the story of the first two Indian baseball players to sign contracts with Major League Baseball. Million Dollar Arm chose the make the story be mainly about the agent trying to sign them. Similarly, the white authority figure is the protagonist here which causes some of the stories of the runners to really get shorted when they probably should be elevated. (Friday Night Lights proved that a TV series may be the best possible format for these kinds of stories.) I understand why screenwriters so adhere to the three-act format (If you write a movie, you’d like to see it produced.), but making the coach the center of everything means the third-act drama must be about him, and not the team, competing for a state championship, which should provide plenty of drama by itself. There’s a good 10 or 15 minutes near the end where the film kind of loses its way, but once we get to the race, everything snaps back into place. As is often the case in these kinds of movies, the film ends with a “where are they now” coda that really affected me, as we see how this sports program had a massive impact on the life of this community.
McFarland, USA may run familiar ground, but it mostly wins the race.