I finally saw Niki Caro‘s McFarland, USA last night, and it’s nothing less than a wow and a hit — a fleet, heartfelt, real-deal embrace of all the things that make a good underdog sports movie, and blended with a layering of rural Latino culture and the kind of neighborhood/family values that make it all worth it when you get past the materialistic creature-comforts bullshit. (Except for lightning-fast wifi, that is — life is a bucket of shit if you don’t have that.)
Caro, director of the epic Whale Rider (’02), is telling the true story of track coach Jim White, who led a mostly Latino high school track team in a hardscrabble San Joaquin Valley community to an unlikely state championship in the mid ’80s, and then kept the winning streak going into the early aughts.
Obviously a descendant of David Anspaugh‘s Hoosiers (’86), which opened around the time the film’s story unfolds, McFarland USA is a comfort-blanket that you either have to wrap around you or leave the hell alone and walk out of the room. I bought it lock, stock and barrel. I took the wrap. I hate sentimental manipulations in family-friendly movies, but I had to let McFarland, USA in because it deals fair, face-up cards.
Kevin Costner is playing White, and we all know the name of that tune. Costner has long had an affinity for sports sagas, and can do this kind of thing in his sleep. But he’s underplaying like a champ, and he actually finds something unaffected and sincere and even epic in this mostly predictable small-town drama. And it doesn’t matter that you can guess what will happen and to whom. Because Costner and Caro and the 97% Latino cast (Carlos Pratts, Diana Maria Riva and Ramiro Rodriguez are three of the many stand-outs) deliver in just the right way.
Caro and screenwriters Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson are not reinventing the wheel here. Almost all sports flicks are ritualistic repeatings of the same basic beats. But McFarland pushes the necessary buttons in a nimble, just-right way. McFarland is telling a true story in a way that feels honest, centered and whole. Am I some kind of sap because I bought it and felt good and clapped at the end? Maybe, but I don’t feel like one.
In its own Latino-culture way McFarland, USA is some kind conservative heartland film that basically says “hooray for a country that rewards hard workers who don’t quit” and all that. It actually has a scene in which all the main characters quietly sing “The Star Spangled Banner” together, and it works. I usually hate movies that pull stuff like this, and yet I bought it this time. Me, Jeffrey Wells…stirred by a John McCain moment in a Disney movie! I need to listen to Lou Reed‘s New York album.
Despite what Variety‘s Justin Chang wrote a few days ago, McFarland, USA is not The White Side — a flick about a Wonderbread track coach transforming a community or learning to find his place within it — it’s a patient, cunningly paced, fully integrated appraisal what it takes to overcome or transcend roadblocks and weaknesses on all sides…about love and defeatism and aching muscles and discipline…the values and spiritual currents that pretty much everyone has to find his or her way into in order to make their life work out.
I went into last night’s Santa Barbara Film Festival screening hoping (and perhaps even expecting on some level) that it would at least be an acceptable 7.5 or 8. Chang’s review, which offered a qualified thumbs-up while complaining that it was too much of a white-guy thing, had tempered my expectations. But I sensed confidence and assurance early on, and then it gradually started to come together with explorations of several Latino characters and their families and various folks on the periphery, and then it gathered steam and urgency and paid off with the usual “our lives are on the line” gravitas. Totally standard but done just right.
Somewhere around the halfway point it began to hit me that McFarland USA is easily in the same hallowed realm as Hoosiers. That sounds like a huge claim, I realize, as many film lovers place Anspaugh’s period pic at the very top of the list, but Caro’s film really is a humdinger of its type, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the first solid ground-rule double…hell, call it a triple…of 2015.