McFarland, USA (Disney, 2015)
As small towns go, McFarland isn’t what you would call typical. Situated south of Bakersfield, California, it’s an arid patch of squalor that looks more like Mexico than the U.S. Families stick together as they rise early and go to work picking cabbages, shelling almonds, and heading home at dark. The kids go to work before school, starting age 11, to help their families survive.
This is the perfect place for Jim White (Kevin Costner), a hot-tempered football coach. After throwing a shoe at a sassy quarterback in Boise, Idaho, he gets fired. White arrives at McFarland with nowhere else to go, taking a position as assistant coach and teacher. If you want a more depressing start to a movie, I challenge you to find it. Jim and his daughters and wife move into a “house” that is one step up from tenement housing. The neighbor’s chickens wake him early every morning.
McFarland High School is situated across from a penitentiary, to which many of his students graduate. Demoted quickly from coaching to PE teacher, Jim has his classes of poor Latino students run laps. Having no cars, the boys then run home. It turns out they run everywhere, even from the cabbage fields to school in the morning. And when Jim follows one of the boys, clocking him with a kitchen timer, he measures a pace of five minutes a mile. That’s fast. So Jim White gets an idea for a new team at McFarland.
Based on a true story, McFarland USA doesn’t try to be funny, and is about as laid back as a movie can be. The drama of team sports is part of the story, but it’s really about conviction and what motivates us. Most amazing, it shows many of us a part of America you never knew existed. Compared to McFarland, CA, we really live in a tropical paradise here in Louisiana. But like so many people in our area, the folks in McFarland have a friendliness and devotion to each other that makes it a special place.
Although the story is a little rough, the scenery, extensively filmed, is beautiful. McFarland is in Kern County, which has rolling areas of chaparral punctuated by mountains. The families live rough lives working as pickers, and in 1987, few got a chance to complete high school, let alone attend college. White wants to change that.
Truly a family movie about families, some scenes will break your heart. White stops at a store and finds four of the boys in his class drinking out of a water hose. With a coke in his hand, he asks why they don’t get a cold one inside. Their laughing sarcastic answer is “This is free, White.” Costner is supported in the leading role by a strong cast, as White’s daughters contend with a new culture and schools. The boys White coaches all shine in their roles as teens coming of age.
As he comes to understand how McFarlanders live, White develops a respect and admiration for his students and their families. Yes, it’s a story told before, but the authenticity of McFarland is amazing, and becoming a hallmark of Costner’s latest films.
Most amazing is the credit roll, showing the real life people the movie is based on, a “where they are now” segment that truly shows the difference one person made in a town, a state, and a country. It all comes down to people.
McFarland USA is rated PG for a gang attack. Enjoy!