“You know you’re white, right?”
At the heart of McFarland, USA, Disney’s latest family friendly sports film about a cross-country team overcoming insurmountable odds, is an easy-going movie I imagine most audiences will enjoy. It’s harmless and pleasant to a fault, like eating good in a neighborhood Applebee’s. Nothing fancy but still decent. However, it pales in comparison to other recently successful Disney sport’s flicks, (Remember the Titans and Glory Road match the assimilation factor). It’s more like listening to Jackson Browne’s song Running on Empty for two hours straight. Patronizing, condescending…whatever you want to label it, that’s how the movie made me feel. McFarland, USA may be about running, but there is no pace and no sprint to a photo finish. Instead it slugs along. A movie can’t get its legs beneath itself after getting lactic acid build-up the moment it starts its race.
After losing his temper in a high school football game halftime talk, Jim White (Kevin Costner) must find employment elsewhere. So from the cozily Caucasian Boise, Idaho to the entirely Hispanic McFarland, California the White family goes. There he teaches life science and PE, is eventually asked to step down as assistant football coach, and decides to start a cross-country team. Why, you ask? Well because these kids, who start out more as field-picking physical specimens than real people with personalities surpassing more than one character trait, can run really fast. It’s a bad news bears arrangement of a team, and as you might have guessed, is 100% predictable. Don’t get me wrong, predictability can be good. In fact it brings some relief. But it can also be predictable and refreshing at the same time. This isn’t, and feels more like a toddler watching that week’s episode of Blue’s Clues for the fifth time, proudly knowing every detail and every turn the story was going to take.
To its credit, the movie makes a sport like cross-country exciting. Not that it isn’t for actual runners, but nevertheless it is a group of people going from point A to point B. It’s a long and repetitive journey that is sped up by countless camera angles and purposeful editing that splices it all together in an interesting way. For the most part though, I just disliked the story. The major problem is the reliance on stereotypes, which are necessary, although here the characters don’t transcend their general one-note qualities. And that’s doubled down for the extremely likable kids. Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) is the best runner and has a bit of an attitude. Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar) is the lady’s man and troublemaker. Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran) is the nice kid who gets cut from football. And Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez) is the chubby bull at the back of the pack. That’s not to mention the other 3 indistinguishable boys.
Of the other Disney movies I mentioned, this bears the strongest resemblance to Remember the Titans. Two cultures initially clashing only to coalesce through sport and a sense of joint community. There’s a level of validation and honesty to that story. And that film, like this one, takes so many liberties with the truth. But here it doesn’t add to the overall scope of things…it merely dilutes it. A fake romance between Jim’s daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Thomas. Julie’s makeshift Quinceañera. The foreboding presence of Victor’s cousin, who is straight-laced and good-natured but constantly shadowed as a thug in disguise. The big moments work – sort of – but there is none of Remember the Titans’ intimacy. No left side, strong side instance of bonding. No moving speech at the Battle of Gettysburg. Not even the subtle place of time and setting with a group of blacks and whites karaoking Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. This makes the whites look mean and the Hispanic culture is stripped down to salsa/mariachi music and unintelligibly rapid-fire dialogue. I imagine that if it entered a race, McFarland, USA would still be running while more inspiring, smarter, and dignifying films have already left the podium with their medals draped around their necks.
“That’s why no one stays in McFarland unless they have to…cus there ain’t nothin’ American Dream about this place.”
Rating: 2 out of 5