As the coach of an all-Latino cross country team in a predominantly Latino California town, Jim White is a name not so much too good to be true as scarily indicative of an old screenwriting go-to – that is, the White Savior. The White Savior is named White? So the characters can nickname him Blanco? That sounds like something only a terribly conservative and just plain terrible sports movie could conjure. Yet Jim White was a real person and that his young Latino charges apparently really did nickname him Blanco and Blanco really did coach these kids to a state title in 1987 (and eight more after). It’s a fine story all on its own, one hardly in need of embellishment or increased “conflict” to heighten the “stakes.” And yet “McFarland USA” goes searching for ways to ramp up the drama anyway, which it makes for a befuddling film, one that is actually quite good when it’s not getting in its own damn way.
Kevin Costner’s Jim White is introduced as a sort of volatile football coach, dismissed because of that sort of volatility, volatility that they can’t make too volatile because it’s still Disney. So he throws a cleat that cuts a player’s chin. That’s enough to get him disgraced and dismissed. But Costner seems less than dedicated to this idea of volatility just as he seems less than dedicated to the idea of his character being a national emblem for his own last name. When he moves his family to McFarland, taking a last ditch job as PE teacher and assistant football coach, he takes his family out to dinner and seems genuinely confused by the word “tacos”. “Do you have burgers?” he asks incredulously, like if he’s not ordering at Chili’s he’s essentially trying to conduct impossible chemistry experiments. Not long after, a fleet of cars appear, made in the film’s cinematic language to look like gangbangers, and as Costner hustles his family to the car, Costner looks like a man less frightened than embarrassed by the scene he’s in. “Can’t we do better than this?” you imagine him asking director Niki Caro just after she’s yelled cut.
And that’s the thing, Caro can, and does. Her movie settles in as White and his family settle into the community. Once the clichés needed to set the tone for his emotional turnaround are dispensed with, she provides a clear-eyed view of this story. She presents the conception of the cross country team idea not with the traditional “A Ha!” Moment but with a moment that’s more just like “Oh, Hey.” Eating a sandwich in the bleachers, White recognizes how fast some of the kids in his class run and seems like a pretty decent idea to have them run competitively. Costner plays the moment so perfectly, so matter of fact, that he doesn’t even stop eating his sandwich.
Each of his young charges is given at least a little time in his own world, so we see them for them, who they really are, and what this cross country team might mean to each one. They are so fast, we learn, because they are made to run everywhere, from home to picking in the fields in the morning to school and then back to the fields. For the most part, they don’t lash out at this life, they accept it with equal parts admirable grace and understandable frustration. This is how they live, and the real drama in the film is simply in watching the effortless empathy that develops between the coach and his athletes. When White takes them to the beach for the first time, apparently a moment that really did happen, it should by all rights be Disneyfied bombast. But it’s not. It’s a moving evocation of the world outside McFarland, an evocation of where they can go
The concluding sequences get mucked up a bit in false conflict of whether or not White will accept a job at a more prestigious school coaching their track team, yet the catharsis when the inevitable victory happens is never blunted and very real. It’s imbued with a selflessness, the way a team teaches you to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and how that team allows White to become part of a bigger community, and how a welcoming community can allow individuals the space to be themselves.
Occasionally the film also gets a bit too pointed in painting its competitors
This isn’t about Us vs. Them; it’s just Us. And they are more than good enough.