McFarland, USA

McFarland, USA

2015, PG, 128 min. Directed by Niki Caro. Starring Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Martha Higareda, Miguel Aguero, Sergio Avelar, Hector Duran, Rafael Martinez, Johnny Ortiz, Carlos Pratts, Ramiro Rodriguez, Danny Mora.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 20, 2015

Kevin Costner’s career has never exactly been No. 1 with a bullet in my personal cache of actors to fixate on. Admittedly, the fussy contretemps over his digitally enhanced hair, or lack thereof, that seeped out prior to the release of Waterworld 20 years ago, was something of a gas. His sporting films – Tin Cup, For Love of the Game, etc. – have left me cold. So it’s a pleasant surprise to be able to say that as Jim White, the initially reluctant but formative coach of a tiny, all-Latino high school track team who goes on to win beyond their wildest dreams, Costner delivers, and does so with a gruffly charming grace.

Set in 1987, this inspirational Disney sports film (that’s a niche, but a growing one) hits all the schmaltzy, sappy notes you’d expect, but never falls to its knees under the burden. Costner plays it cool for the most part, even as he finds himself, his wife (Bello), and two young daughters stuck in McFarland, Calif., the heart of SoCal’s migrant produce-picker region, after his hot temper gets him canned from his previous teaching position in Anytown, USA. Anytown apparently didn’t have Mexican food on the menu, and Costner and his brood are shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn that the taqueria they pull into on their first night in town doesn’t serve burgers. Pure hell for gringos indeed, and then there’s those loco hombres in their lowriding Chevy Impalas to worry about. Ay-yi-yi.

Director Caro lays it on thicker than your abuelita’s ranchera sauce during the early part of the film and your hopes immediately dim; Stand and Deliver meets The Rookie via long-distance running sounds like 128 minutes of rough road. But Costner and a seriously talented cast of young actors – including several SoCal newcomers discovered during local casting, among them Ramino Rodriguez as the team’s chunky “anchor” – keep things moving at a slow, steady pace that eventually pays off.

McFarland, USA could easily have been a truly bad movie, so thick are its sports-underdog cliches, but Kiwi director Caro (Whale Rider) gets a lot right, not least of which is tapping into the reality of the “picker” kids’ impossibly difficult daily life. There’s an excellent sequence midway through the film wherein Coach White decides to spend a full day with four members of his nascent team, picking endless rows of lettuce beneath the withering California sun. It’s this sort of attention to the minutiae of what, exactly, it meant – and means, still – to be young, Latino, and poor in Southern California, that helps the film to rise above expectations. McFarland, USA may be chock-full of inspirational sports-film cliches, but through sheer force of will (and a fine turn from Costner), it makes it to the finish line with wit and wisdom intact.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

McFarland, USA, Niki Caro, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Martha Higareda, Miguel Aguero, Sergio Avelar, Hector Duran, Rafael Martinez, Johnny Ortiz, Carlos Pratts, Ramiro Rodriguez, Danny Mora

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