If you could break life down into a series of Venn diagrams, at the point where the circles for “people who like sports” and “people who like movies” intersect, you would find “Kevin Costner fans.”
Say what you will about Costner’s complete body of work, but there is no denying the fact the man knows how to make a sports film compelling and entertaining. He has made six of them in his career, with only one (1999’s “For Love of the Game”) receiving anything less than glowing critical review. Costner has even been able to make movies about golf and the NFL draft interesting.
Now that Costner is too old to believably play the role of an athlete, he has begun making the transition into other arenas of the sports world, such as playing the general manager of the Cleveland Browns in the previously mentioned film about the draft. Now, “McFarland, USA” has Costner playing the role of real-life high school athletics coach Jim White.
Based on a true story, “McFarland, USA” opens on White as a high school football coach in Idaho. A locker room altercation with a student results in his termination, and his track record of being difficult to work with severely limits his ability to find another position. The only option available to him is in the small town of McFarland, California, as an assistant football coach/physical education teacher.
After another clash of personalities with the school’s head football coach gets him removed from the team, White looks for another outlet for his coaching desires and finds many of the school’s youth to be naturally adept at distance running. So White decides to convince the principal to allow him to start the school’s first cross country team.
From there, the movie hits all the beats that you expect from a Disney film of this ilk. The White family initially feels like outcasts in a town where they are the only non-Mexican immigrants, but they grow to be accepted in the community. White is depicted as a competitive but overly passionate individual who learns compassion and a love for his students over the course of the film. There are some life lessons learned by everyone, and the ending is happy, as we’re shown that the real-life White turned the real-life McFarland High School into a California powerhouse, winning nine cross country state championships.
Yes, “McFarland, USA” is as formulaic as one would expect from a sports movie from Disney. But even though the film does absolutely nothing to surprise, and the ending is never in doubt, none of that stops the film from being completely entertaining. And while director Niki Caro deserves a fair amount of credit for that, the contributions of Costner should not be overlooked and cannot be understated.
In a film about sports, it helps to have a naturally gifted athlete on set. Even when he is not doing anything particularly athletic, Costner’s deep understanding of the sports mentality plays itself out in all of his mannerisms and infuses his acting with a level of genuineness that it might not otherwise have. Having someone in the role of White who understands team sports and a coach’s mentality is what makes an otherwise trite, by-the-numbers underdog movie completely work. Maria Bello is nicely understated as White’s wife, and Carlos Pratts is great as the angry, headstrong runner Thomas Valles. But make no mistake, this is Kevin Costner’s film. And as long as he keeps making them, sports fans rejoice. CV