It is incredible how these real life sports stories keep happening for astute filmmakers to make into movies to inspire many more than whoever heard of the remarkable achievement in the first place. Such is the case with Disney’s McFarland USA and its tale of the children of field pickers and their journey from life’s also-rans to cross country state champions.
Kevin Costner is Coach Jim White. Our story begins with him in Idaho where an accidental series of events finds him out of a job and moving with his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters to the titular California town nestled beautifully into the Golden State’s agricultural belt. He is teaching and serving as the assistant football coach at McFarland High School and eventually he becomes not so wanted (again) as a football coach!
Driving to school one morning, he sees several of his students running from the fields where they toil in the early hours of each day to school. They’re fast. Coach White, football expert, will suddenly become Coach White, assembler of a cross country team.
Over the next few hours, director Niki Caro paints a painstaking and uplifting portrait of what it takes to make a champion. The challenges facing this neophyte team were immense. They couldn’t even afford the right shoes to run in because their community was so poor. And as is pointed out in the McFarland, USA trailer, cross country is normally a private school sport, i.e. programs with money.
Caro also conveys her film as true of an American success story as they make. A lot of things have to come together for the American dream to become a reality -- ask anyone who has achieved it. What happened in McFarland, as captured in this must-see movie, shows that when people come together, work hard, play by the rules and stretch to the limits what it is they are capable of -- there is nothing each one of us cannot do in this life.
Costner plays Coach White in what amounts to a fantastic tribute to the man who changed lives and served as the spark and a catalyst for a small town in the process. It is the actor’s best work in years and as told to us in our Kevin Costner interview for McFarland USA, it did not come out of nowhere. The actor had several coaches in his life who helped straighten the arrow of his life trajectory when it was getting crooked. Costner pays tribute to his own mentors through inhabiting White and as such, we hope, others will see this film and take to the art of coaching, aka altering lives for the better.
Race to see McFarland USA and let it serve as a pay-it-forward type of cinematic experience. One person can make a difference. Coach White did.
Our only complaint is a minor one, our McFarland USA review has to point out. Bello is fantastic, but is so grossly underused. Diving deeper into the story it becomes clear that in real life, Mrs. White was as much a part of the team’s success as her husband. She was like a surrogate mother when the team was away on races. We just wish there had been room in Caro’s movie to portray that. But, then again in hindsight, why the film still works so well is that McFarland USA is truly about the boys who became champions and really less about the man who coached them.
Is the film one of the top 11 Kevin Costner movies from his distinguished and award-winning three decade-plus career? It's close.