Right at the beginning of the third act of Disney’s McFarland, USA, there’s a great scene, maybe even one of Kevin Costner’s best. It significantly shifts the film’s low-level regiment of a sports movie, and takes a path less traveled. Costner is Jim White, the gruff old coach that sees something in a bunch of Mexican-American high school students. They’re all migrant workers at the edges of the day, running from work to school to work to sleep and back again. White says he understands, but does he really? He’s just an exploiter of talent; “Blanco,” the man, in these kids’ eyes. This team’s an uphill battle of a relationship.
So White, in a bid to keep his runners onboard, in a moment of actually wearing the other’s person’s shoe, joins them in the fields. He can bark all he wants about hard work and discipline, but what about the daily grind these kids already endure?
It’s not a shameless stunt. White sweats and looks about ready to die, but in the fields amidst the cabbage he’s chopping, he has a moment of clarity. He may actually now understand these kids. And what we assumed was a sports film evolves into a mildly festive and heartfelt piece of cultural immersion. He gives up on his Old Man Sports Business just long enough for something richer. Costner eats tamales, hangs with low rider gangs (that aren’t stereotypical criminals), and even tosses a chicken around. Why there’s even a quinceañera.
But above all, he gets to really know and care for these kids and their families. He sees the whole picture, and is able to meet them somewhere splendidly in the middle, stray chickens and all. From the guy that gave us the self-sanctimonious Dances With Wolves comes his second, less messianic act of white man goes West.
But again, that’s just the second act.
When McFarland, USA does the sports thing, it’s just doing laps. There’s a good hour-plus of uncaring characterization and head-butting. But as an intro-level family film about Mexican-American relations, it’s reasonably entertaining. When Costner starts to give a damn about them as people and not athletic opportunity, you start to give a damn about the running too. “Based on the true story” of the 1987 McFarland High School cross country team, McFarland, USA chronicles seven kids coming out of nowhere, taking on the preppy track establishment, and maybe even learning a thing or too along the way.
See, it’s boring to have to recount the same underdog story every time with these Disney true story things. And they always downplay the cultural element. Miracle was the happiest, most-cliché riddled account of the Miracle on Ice imaginable, and it completely skipped on the Russian side. Remember The Titans, a rah-rah go get ‘em football flick literally danced around race to the tune of Marvin Gaye. Don’t even get us started on that 105-minute Jim Croce commercial Invincible, or last summer’s Million Dollar Arm, a.k.a. “Jerry Maguire goes Bollywood.” What this litany is trying to say is that Disney has a formula, a low cost, high return one. It’s a really annoyingly familiar formula made from leftovers, devoid of any spice every time.
That’s why McFarland, USA, however sun-lit and sappy it may be, deserves a little credit for at least trying to engage in other culture. For every hokey “Welcome to McFarland!” or “now I’ve seen everything!” line, there’s some honest, or even inarticulate rumination by Costner’s White about difference. For every safe K-Mart music choice (looking right at “Watermelon Man” and “Flashlight” on this one), and well-lit drink of Coke, there are scrumptious-looking homemade meals and mariachi bands. Despite cross-country being possibly one of the most tedious sports to film, McFarland, USA eventually gets around it through emotional investment. In the end, Kevin Costner actually gets over himself and learns how to have fun with others.