McFarland, USA

McFarland,_USA_posterDirector Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) is already adept at feel-good films, and star Kevin Costner (“Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “For Love Of The Game,” “Tin Cup,” “Draft Day”) certainly has done his share of sports movies. And who doesn’t love to root for the underdog?

But “McFarland USA,” though swimming in the predictable waters of athletic triumphalism, still manages to entice the viewer to love its own unique version of small-town Americana: McFarland, California. Here, the lush orange groves and lettuce farms are dotted with seasonal workers, many of them migrant, some of them illegal immigrants, and none of them making a living wage. But here they are, slaving away in the hot sun, trying to catch some elusive part of the American Dream.

Coach Jim White (Costner) moves to town in a U-Haul with his wife and two daughters, mainly because he has no other choices left. It seems he has a temper and has demonstrated it not only with superiors, but also with the kids he’s coaching. This is his last chance: as an assistant coach of a small school football team that is getting shellacked every week. The head coach is brutish, nasty and incompetent, managing to inspire in his charges nothing but disappointment and dejection. White is about to blow his last chance to get along when the principal suddenly asks him about coaching cross-country instead. He’d never done it. But he was willing to try anything at this point. And he soon discovered that he actually had some talent to work with. The trouble was, the boys weren’t always available. They were out picking in the fields alongside the rest of their families, just as they’d all been doing since they were 10 years old.

Coach White, out of solidarity, thinks that he’ll go out with them one day to pick lettuce, but soon realizes what backbreaking drudgery it is and quickly adjusts his thinking. He holds practices whenever he can. He gets to know the kids and their families. The Hispanic community begins to realize that here is a Gringo who actually cares and they begin to respond to him. He’s willing to learn from them. He’s willing to laugh at himself. He knows how to encourage the boys to find that reservoir of toughness within them. And before long, the boys begin to experience some success and then to develop some enthusiasm, which spreads through the town like wildfire. They’ve not experienced this kind of winning before and they were happy to be part of the unabashed celebration. Coach White and his family find a supportive community they didn’t expect, especially when they all turn out for the older daughter’s quinceanera fiesta.

Sure, it sounds schmaltzy, but it is actually based on a true story. We even get to meet the “real” characters during the closing credits. No, there are no real surprises here. But this is the kind of family film that can reach through several generations and be multicultural as well, which makes it run circles around some of the self-entitled competition.

Click here to read Ron Salfen’s interview with coach Jim White.

RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.