McFarland, USA (2015): A Worthy Winner

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The reason I waited till now to see McFarland, USA is plainly because I thought it would be just another cliché movie on teacher inspiring students, and specifically here, a white teacher coming into a hispanic community, changing their youngsters to what they’re not, the white knight of condescension.

I’m glad that’s all a misconstrued perception. True, there’s a white teacher coming into the poorest town in the USA, McFarland, CA, where most of its population is hispanic, Mexican immigrants labouring in the open fields from morn till dusk picking produce. The hope of the parents’ – if there is any – is for their sons to continue picking produce so they can earn a living for themselves.

What’s best about this movie is that it’s a true story. The script is well-written and the production helmed by a competent director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, 2002). While its elements seem like the ingredients of a formulaic teacher changing students feel-good movie, it is surprisingly moving and exceeds my expectation.

Sure, the coach can’t be more white… a Mr. Jim White (Kevin Costner) from Idaho. You can’t find a whiter name. The school is McFarland High School, with low morales and expectations, students from blue-collar Mexican immigrant families. We see Mr. White come to McFarland after some unsuccessful employment at another school. Bringing his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) with him, White soon finds they are a misfit and maybe even unsafe in the town. Yet, he has no choice; this is his only job offer.

McFarland 1

Hired as a biology and gym teacher, White one day discovers some of his boys are fast long-distance runners. There are the Diaz boys, David (Rafael Martinez), Damacio (Michael Auguero), and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez, well, maybe not all of them fast) who are waken up by their mother every morning before dawn to go work on the fields before they head to school. Their only way to get to school on time from the field is by running fast. And then there’s Carlos Valles (Carlos Pratts), whose athletic talent is marred by family and personal conflicts.

White sees the potentials these boys have. With no experience whatsoever, he asks for permission to set up a seven-member cross country running team and train the boys for competition. Being the newest team, they have to compete against well-trained and formidable upper-middle-class schools from areas such as Palo Alto. Physical endurance comes much easier than when the McFarland boys have to deal with low self-image and discouragement.

Kevin Costner is the key to the success of the movie. I can’t think of any other actor who is more suitable for the role. Costner is a natural, even without the chance of him pitching a baseball, even having him ride a girl’s Barbie bike (his daughter’s apparently) to keep up with the boys in their practice, as he’s just a bit over-the-hill to run with them. A charmer and very convincing here, Costner shows genuine concern for the welfare of his students, even going to the fields to pick produce with them to make up for the time when he takes them out for practice. He soon wins the hearts of the parents and their community.

The movie captures my attention from the very start, any resistance is soon melted by Costner’s performance, and the natural appearance of the students and their families. Most of them are first time actors, and some are residents of McFarland. One soon finds that it’s not a white knight rescuing the underprivileged, but life-changing for them all. The movie sheds no traces of racism or condescension, but paints a realistic picture of family, community and the humanity that binds.

If you want to avoid spoilers here we have the historical facts in the following:

The triumph comes in the final act of the movie when the McFarland Cross Country Team The Cougars won the California States championship in 1987, and subsequently, a total of nine wins over the next fourteen years. And to his credit, White turned down an offer from a Palo Alto high school to stay where he was, at McFarland.

What is most moving is the final text shown on screen telling how the boys had turned out in real life. All of them have no family member who had gone past a grade 9 education, but all seven of them in the cross country team graduated from college. Some of them had gone back to teach at McFarland High School, one became a police detective, one a writer for the L.A. Times. We see their faces as adults, the fruits of everyone’s labour at McFarland.

The triumph of the movie is in its authenticity and uplifting ending. Uplifting because it’s a true story. Of course, the filmmakers have to tweak and add in dramatic elements to turn it into a watchable movie, but the basic facts remain intact. I can’t remember being so moved by a Disney movie. Kudos to the McFarland community for the inspiration.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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CLICK HERE to watch a featured video of the movie.

Here’s a “History vs. Hollywood” comparison.

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