The underdog story is one very familiar to sports dramas. Audiences have been rocked by the crucial drive of a close football game, slammed into the glass in the last seconds of a hockey match, and even left biting their nails during the final tee. Cross-country, endurance running, would seem to pale in comparison to such intense moments, but McFarland, USA proves that it too can evoke excitement and anticipation. Based on the true story of the 1987 McFarland High School cross-country team, this film is just as fulfilling as any other sports film. Though we know all too well that characters and teams faced with seemingly insurmountable odds will inevitably come out on top, this gripping tale still pulls emotionally at the heart strings as each runner takes their mark.
Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a football coach shrouded in numerous controversies. After his latest scandal, he is forced to find what work he can, relocating his family to McFarland, Calif., a town of mostly working class Hispanics. At the local high school, White is met with a ragtag sports program and a most ungracious welcome. After recognizing the hopelessness of the football program, he sets his sights on several boys with a knack for running. Seeing an opportunity to reinvigorate the school and his career, White begins his task of molding them into runners fit to combat the rich and privileged towns surrounding them. In an effort to do so, White becomes ingrained in the boys lives and truly experiences their hardships working in the fruit fields, managing academics and attempting to hold their families together. As their talents grow and their passion for the sport increases, the reality of a State Championship transcends from fantasy, for this small town, into a reality.
While it may be easy to write off McFarland, USA as another predictable underdog triumph story, it has what many other stories lack: heart. Its predictability can be forgiven, because its emotional clout is centered in real characters. Their struggles outside the sport feel just as poignant as those in it. As these boys struggle to come to grips with the reality of their family lives and the possibility of something better, their goals and aspirations are funneled into cross country.
In many ways, the sport and their lives are inseparable.The characters’ emotional and physical exhaustion is represented in every way on screen. Though the outcome is certainly known, the journey to that victory is in no way diminished, because the audience’s investment more than pays dividends when the anguish of their poverty dissipates in light of a better future.
The performances, though not flawless, evinced a kind of earnestness that is consistent throughout the whole of the film. Costner’s transformation dynamically changed from a man ignorant of foreign culture to one that embraces it. Though this kind of trope,coach embraces culture, has been seen before, Costner’s performance served as a convincing and suitable backbone for the rest of the cast.
On a critical note, the film was set in 1987, yet there was little in the way of props, sets or wardrobe to suggest this. Aside from the occasional VCR or vintage automobile, the film’s setting and context would remain fairly ambiguous if not for the on screen text indicating year and month. This detracts from the film only slightly as the nature of the true story shines more clearly through the characters than the sets.
The camerawork on the film captured the training and races in a beautiful manner. Though they are no pieces of cinematic masterpiece, the shots and scenes fit well tonally in context with the rest of the film. Whether long takes of mountainsides or the straight and narrow trails between fruit orchards, common of the McFarland area, the shots served as a reminder of the very real nature of life in Southern California. When not panning across visually stimulating terrain, the close camerawork evoked thrill and tension. The stampede of feet and sweat, visibly dripping off of the actors stirred up visceral feelings of tiredness. The exhaustion and the longevity of the races themselves created such palpable tension in the air that upon their completion viewers themselves may have gasped for air.
McFarland, USA creates an enjoyable and comfortably cultured atmosphere. The fair camerawork coupled with solid performances lead to a striking tale of perseverance not unlike anything we have seen before, but entertaining in its own right.
Featured Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios