Every year, Walt Disney Studios presents a sport-related movie loaded with hope and inspiration. This year’s sports entry is McFarland U.S.A. and the sport is cross-country. The criteria of a Disney sports-related movies is it has to be loosely based on a true story. It must feature an underdog or a team of underdogs, who overcome personal obstacles to come out on top. We are then treated to a series of sports-related montages leading to a moment of unbearable schmaltz, which ends with victory or something real close to victory.
McFarland U.S.A. fits the mold of Disney sports movie. The film follows the last leg of football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who accepts a job at the last school in California willing to hire him. McFarland High School, located in the middle of Central California, is as stated in the film, the poorest city in the state. White moves into the city with this wife, Cheryl (Mario Bello) and two young daughters, Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher). Already he fears for their safety. It is clear that the White family are the fish out of water in the predominately Mexican-American community.
Just as soon as White’s football career starts in McFarland, it quickly ends with White’s demotion to a life science and physical education teacher. The majority of his students are children of farm pickers. The pay of the parents is so low that most children are needed to work as pickers themselves in the mornings before school and on weekends. White soon discovers that this hard work and a carbo diet of rice and beans, not only makes the student good endurance runners, but instills a work ethic that makes them perfect for cross country.
The events of the movie take place in 1987, and the state of California has just made cross-country and state supported sport. The newly sanctioned program means that the California will subsidize cross-country expenses including coaches.
Now the story takes off. White has to recruit a team, get the team to trust him and turn them into winners. Recruiting means that White has to visit the families and understand their culture. Not just the Mexican culture, but the culture of the poor in Central California. This fulfills the cultural lesson we expect from Disney movies.
White’s team may come from the same town, but they have different stories. Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) is McFarland’s best runner. His father is always looking for work and rarely home. He does not believe anyone will leave McFarland. The Diaz brothers, Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), David (Rafael Martinez) and Damacio (Michael Aguero) must quit the team in order to work on the farm and support their family. White tries in vain to win the parents over.
The movie pulls out all the stops to tug at your heart strings. Coach White’s goal is to get his family out of McFarland as soon as he can. In order to build a strong team, White has to understand the culture of McFarland. The White Family has to accept their surroundings and the people around them. The students have to work hard to realize their dreams including being the first of their family to receive a college education.
These themes are not that different from other sports-related movies and especially from Disney movies, in general. What makes McFarland worth watching is the acting and writing. Kevin Costner is at his best as the everyday guy with a little bit of authority. He is as believable as he gets in playing a normal person with dreams and struggles. At no point does his performance feel forced nor the emotional moments feel false. The story also manages to make real the schmaltzy moments like forgetting his daughter’s birthday and whether to take the job in the big city.
There are not a lot of surprises in McFarland USA. The ending where-are-they-now is inspiring and real at the same time. The real question is can Disney produce a sports movie next year that pushes the boundaries of storytelling and drama.