In 1987, football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) loses his job at a high school for losing his temper and throwing a shoe at a kid. It wasn’t the first time. He is hired by the high school in McFarland in California’s central valley as the assistant coach and life science teacher despite the principal’s hesitation.
When Jim, his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters arrive in McFarland, they are very unsure they want to stay. The town and neighborhood is poor, the weather hot, and almost everyone is Latino. (In fact, the kids start to call Jim “Blanco,” Spanish for “White,” Jim’s last name.) The only thing going on is raising crops.
It doesn’t take long for Jim and his coach to disagree; the football team is not exactly on a winning streak. Then Jim notices what strong runners the kids are when they run laps. He notices that some of the boys run from school to the fields, where they work with their families to earn money as fruit and vegetable pickers. Although Jim has never coached cross-country running, he decides to give it a try.
It is a challenge to recruit the seven runners he needs for a team, but he convinces the three members of the Diaz family and four others to begin training. However, this presents a problem for these young men: They already have to get up early to pick before school. In order to train, they have to do it after school and spend more hours picking. As Jim tells the kids when they get to their first meet, none of these other kids have the heart than his team has.
New Zealand director Niki Caro, who gave us the marvelous “Whale Rider” in 2002 and the inspiring “North Country” in 2005, directs “McFarland, USA” from a place of empathy. She is able to get inside the heads and hearts of these young people and draws winning performances that make you smile and appreciate who they are as individuals living in a hard-working, hardscrabble community that everyone else seems to have forgotten.
I interviewed the real Jim White, and he said Niki spent a couple of nights at their house, and they took her to a Mexican wedding and where she was serenaded by a mariachi band.
“She reached in and got the true feelings of the kids as well as the hardships and family relationships and problems,” Jim said. “So, yes, [the film] is true to life.”
Some of the details of his story were changed; for example, he has three daughters, but for some reason, the filmmakers decided to go with just two.
There’s plenty of humor in the film as well, and a more mature Costner plays his part credibly and with restraint. It’s as if he is aware of who the real stars are. There’s also a chicken that — well, you’ll just have to see the film.
The social reach of “McFarland, USA” is more than the story of a team of runners and a broken-down coach who show what they are made of. It’s about community and becoming people of character, getting an education, and coming back to give back.
Disney does sports stories well. I enjoyed Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm” (2014) about a sports agent’s desperate move to recruit baseball players from India, but “McFarland, USA” has something that this earlier movie, also a true story, lacks: investment in the local community by the main character in real life.
Jim White and his wife stayed in McFarland. They still have a home in McFarland, and after Jim retired, they bought one in the nearby mountains, too, “where the air is cleaner.” (McFarland has some of the worst air in the state of California.) They spend time in McFarland and are still friends with the runners and their families.
“McFarland, USA” is a small film about a small team that has made a huge difference in the lives of the people and families of a community, and I just loved it. It’s a sports film that is a metaphor for life, of course, but it’s not about football, and this is fresh and new! “McFarland, USA” is pro-social in every way and is genuinely moving.
[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]