McFarland: inspirational, or underwhelming bore?

I find it difficult to slough off my cynical skin when I watch movies that have the express purpose of being inspirational. It’s not that I don’t find cinema to be inspirational – quite to the contrary. But rather, when I see and hear the well-worn grooves of an underdog sports movie, the result is usually an underwhelming bore of a film.

McFarland is based on the true story of a group of a Mexican-American high school cross country team, coached to victory by Jim White in 1987. Produced by Disney, it’s in the same vein as Remember The Titans, The Blind Side, and Million Dollar Arm.

McFarland checks all the right boxes. True story? Check. Grumpy male role model who learns as much from the kids as they learn from him? Check. Down and out kids in need of a mentor? Check. Insurmountable odds which turn out to be incredibly mountable? Check. Racial and class tension? Check.

But while the dramatic elements may be recycled, it’s quite well executed for what it is. Niki Caro does an admirable job directing; she steers the story away from being yet another story of a white messianic figure, because even as Kevin Costner is unquestionably the star power running the show, McFarland’s best moments are when the film strays from the beaten track and offers up bits and pieces of the lives of the kids Coach White is training.

Seeing Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), the star runner, with cautious enthusiasm as he tells his dad – fresh out of prison – that he may earn a scholarship and go to college, only to have his father tell him that he can’t, he has to work to provide for the family, is a compelling vignette which are too few and far between in McFarland’s 129 minute runtime. The strength of the film is in seeing the gruff charm Costner imbues into Coach Jim White as he and his family develop relationships with the kids on the track team, the local business owners, and the community spirit.

The town of McFarland is your typical rural town, surrounded by farms and rough living conditions, but it’s shot in rich golds and browns, giving the land an earthy, yet majestic feel, which is buoyed by the soulful Latin infused soundtrack.

There are a few distracting gaffes made, one of the most distracting coming early in the film, as the Whites move into their new home in McFarland. After a long drive, they go out on the (tiny) town looking for a place to eat, apparently only finding a small diner with a menu of five or so items, which are all Mexican. Jim White asks if they have hamburgers, and the girl behind the counter patiently explains that that no, they have what’s listed on the menu. It’s an awkward scene which deals with the family’s minor culture shock in a ham-fisted way. Plus, as they leave the restaurant, the camera clearly shows a pizza parlour right behind it, which would have defeated the need for the family’s cross cultural experience.

There’s also misdirection at the same time. When the family leaves the restaurant, they come face-to-face with young folks they assume are gangbangers. We later discover they weren’t gangbangers, simply young men with fancy cars who are revealed to be completely friendly. But in that scene and in a few others, Caro imbues in them a sinister foreboding which doesn’t quite gel with how the scenes play out.

While Caro directs well on the whole, the movie is littered with little bits and scraps of scenes, like those described above, which either don’t play out well or leave them unfinished, abruptly forgetting underdeveloped characters and situations in favour of the story.

Since McFarland follows most of the conventions of the genre, I don’t think it’s too big a spoiler to mention that the team wins the State Championship. But instead of drawing out the suspense of “Will they or won’t they?” the film recognizes that the audience already knows that the team will win, and chooses to focus on the celebration and sense of community and familial support in the wake of the victory.

If you’re a sports fan, McFarland falls directly into your wheelhouse. I think that this clean cut, family drama will appeal to quite a few viewers, and it hits the right emotional sweet spots to satisfy. But to those of you not particularly drawn to the genre – like me – McFarland won’t do much for you.