I was honestly not expecting to see this one. I’ve been quite vocal in my fatigue with inspirational “true story” sports films, and this looked like more of the same. Imagine my shock to find that the movie had a far better critical reception than any derivative mediocrity should be getting.

Then again, this would hardly be the first time a film was poorly represented by its trailer. Also, Kevin Costner has been on such a roll lately that maybe he’s earned a little benefit of the doubt. It’s hard to believe that he’d take such a quick and easy paycheck after all the savvy career moves he’s made over the past couple years.

So I went ahead and sat through McFarland, USA to see if maybe there was something new and original here. And sure enough, there was. Kinda.

Our story takes place in Southern California, 1987. The film opens with Jim White (Costner), a disgraced high school football coach who loses his job after an altercation with a student. The only place that will hire him is the high school in McFarland, the self-proclaimed “fruit bowl of California.” Meaning there are a lot of farms in McFarland. Which means that there are a lot of people there who pick crops.

To be blunt about it, the town is so overwhelmingly Latino that you’d be forgiven for thinking you had missed an exit and kept going south into Mexico.

More than that, McFarland is one of the poorest towns in the nation, and everything looks worn beyond repair. There’s a prison right next door to the high school, for God’s sake. So naturally, White moves into this town with his family (because they’re too broke to live in the next town over) and immediately decide that they want to get right the hell out. Trouble is, White can’t do that without improving his reputation. And to do that, he puts together a cross-country track team, even though he’s only ever coached football.

Just to get it out of the way, this is in many ways your cookie-cutter inspirational “based on a true story” sports flick. The plot was constructed accordingly, as it hits every single expected story beat like clockwork. Far more tragically, this means a lot of awful and useless storylines that serve no other purpose than to tick points off a checklist. White’s dilemma about taking a job elsewhere? Bullshit. The kinda-sorta love subplot that’s kinda-sorta hinted at between White’s daughter (Morgan Saylor) and one of his runners (Thomas, played by Carlos Pratts)? Worthless. The squabbles that White has with his wife and his daughters? Boring.

Really, anything that has to do with White’s home life is only redeemed by two points. First is a very charming sequence that happens at the start of the third act. Second is the casting of Maria freaking Bello to play Mrs. White, bringing some hint of personality to a role Bello could sleepwalk through.

Though of course, Costner’s work helps a lot as well. In fact, his central performance is one of the most crucial positive factors of the whole movie. At this phase in his career, after all, Costner has the whole “stern but loving father figure” thing down cold. To wit: There are several scenes in which Costner is on a girl’s bike — complete with pink tassels on the handlebars — riding alongside the runners he’s coaching. And Costner still conveys an air of authority while also somehow acknowledging how ridiculous he looks. That, gentle readers, is talent.

Of course, one could argue that Costner is playing the cliched white person with a heart of gold whom all the dirty brown people depend on to achieve greatness and believe in themselves. In all honesty, that would be very tough to deny. Still, the movie is good enough to cushion that blow by constantly taking the piss out of White. Hell, the character is a middle-aged white guy whose name is White, and you’d damn well better believe that becomes a running joke throughout the whole picture.

Moreover, it’s always made perfectly clear that White is the stranger/intruder in this community, not the other way around. This is tough to swallow at first, since the beginning of the movie is loaded with lazy attempts at fish-out-of-water racial “humor.” But as the character grows and slowly learns more about the culture of McFarland, the natives begin to treat him as family in ways that are really quite poignant. This isn’t a story about some white guy who barges in and tells everyone the way things should be done; it’s much more symbiotic and interesting than that.

Which brings me to the Latino cast. I’m sorry to say that the Latino supporting cast is loaded with paper-thin stereotypes. We’ve got the overbearing mother figure (Diana Maria Riva), we’ve got the father who wants to keep his kids off the team and focused on something else (Omar Leyva), we’ve got the drunken asshole abusive father (Ben Bray), we’ve got the ditz who won’t shut up (Martha Higareda), the punk who looks and acts like a gangbanger (Rigo Sanchez), the list goes on and on. My personal favorite is the older mentor shopkeeper played by Eloy Casados.

With all of that said, however, any one of these characters would still be more entertaining than a dozen of the same old disposable whitebread douchebag caricatures we’ve seen in countless other films. And this movie has a few of those as well, though their screentime is thankfully kept to a minimum.

But of course, the real stars of this movie are the cross country team. They start out as your usual archetypes — Sergio Avelar plays the cocky rebel, Ramiro Rodriguez plays the fat kid whom everyone underestimates, Carlos Pratts plays the natural leader who slowly learns to believe in himself, and so on. These flimsy characterizations are only a starting point, however; every single one of them is developed so superbly over the course of the film that I couldn’t help getting attached to all seven of these kids. It certainly helps that three of them are brothers — developing half the team by giving screen time to one family is remarkably efficient. More importantly, all seven of these actors (all kudos due to Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, and Michael Aguero, in addition to the ones mentioned previously) put in splendid performances that succeed at leaving an impact.

Even so, there’s one reason above all else why these characters work so well. In fact, it’s the very same reason why this film works as well as it does. You see, even though these are all characters typical to underdog sports stories, and even though they’re all characters you’d expect to see in a racial “fish out of water” story, the two genres are both ingeniously utilized in such a way as to make the other seem more legitimate.

Remember, we can see for ourselves that the town is falling to pieces. We’re explicitly shown that McFarland High’s other sports teams all suck. This is a town where everyone knows each other, so small that no one could point to it on a map. A town populated pretty much entirely by crop pickers and criminals, told by everyone — their families, the government, the media, EVERYONE — that they will never be anything better. And now this town has a high school cross country team good enough to compete at the state level.

One of the most gag-worthy cliches in any underdog sports story is the idea that some athletes have “given the people something to believe in.” That would be a total load of tripe in just about any other movie, but not here. If this movie wants to tell me that it’s a huge freaking deal for this town and probably the brightest source of hope that anyone in McFarland has ever seen in the past few generations, I’m willing to believe it.

These are also reasons why the very concept of the “underdog team” works so well. Again, our heroes are the children of migrant workers who’ve been raised to believe that they will never amount to anything. In fact, these kids are actively held back by their families so they will continue to make desperately-needed money out in the field, thus continuing the cycle. The film makes plenty of statements about the working conditions of immigrants in the farming industry, and they dovetail beautifully with the standard tropes of inspirational sports cinema. It’s an inspired move that makes relevant statements about the treatment of farm labor while also elevating the usual sports film cliches into something more authentic.

Another example: Precisely because these kids are migrant workers, they have physical strength and work ethic to rival even the greatest athletes (plus a carbo-loaded diet of rice and beans). You know that classic bullshit trope about underdogs who are overlooked by everyone even though they just happen to have an overwhelming amount of hidden talent? Well, this film offers a valid reason for that. Brilliant.

As for miscellaneous notes, the visuals are just fine. I’m sure it couldn’t have been easy to make cross country track look exciting, but director Niki Caro does a halfway decent job. It certainly helps that the film was shot in southernmost California, practically on top of the Mexican border, which gives the movie some gorgeous desert vistas to show us. Conversely, the visuals also include a bit of obnoxious product placement that really grated my nerves.

(Side note: Imagine how disappointed I was to learn that the film wasn’t actually shot in McFarland. Such a wasted opportunity. Instead, it seems that principal photography took place in Camarillo, which is even further south than McFarland is.)

There’s no denying that McFarland, USA has a lot of cliched moments. It is, after all, an entry in two genres as tired as the inspirational underdog sports story and the “fish out of water” racial comedy. When the plot merely goes through the motions of one or the other, it’s boring. But far more often, the racial aspect is used to bolster the underdog aspect in ways that are very special. It’s an inspired move that lends heart and novelty to the same old threadbare tropes, delivering something familiar and comfortable with a fresh twist. The added authenticity helps make the characters more sympathetic, which is another bonus, but the rock-solid cast does a lot in that regard as well. Kevin Costner seems to have finally figured out how to stay relevant while aging artistically, and I eagerly look forward to his next few career moves.

I don’t know if this is “go see this opening weekend” material, especially if there are any Oscar nominees/winners you still have to catch up on. But is it worth your time and money? Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

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