In the tradition of Disney sports movies comes 'McFarland, USA,' a story of underdogs triumphing over tremendous obstacles. This heartwarming drama follows novice runners who strive to build a cross-country team under Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) in their predominantly Latino high school. Everyone has a lot to learn about each other, but when Coach realizes the boys' exceptional running ability, things change. Beyond their talent, it's the power of family, commitment to each other and work ethic that transform them into champions — helping them achieve their own American dream.
Hollywood's love affair with sports-centric feel-good movies is well founded. The story of an underdog – or underdogs, as the case may be – rising up to achieve greatness that certain social or economic circumstances prevented them from attaining is generally too good to pass up, especially when the story in question is based on true events. So it should come as no surprise, then, the true story of cross-country coach Jim White and his unlikely team of runners from a small, agriculturally-based California town, would be a shoo-in for the film treatment in Disney's 'McFarland, USA.'
The story follows Kevin Costner's coach Jim White, as he packs up and moves his family (which includes Maria Bello and Morgan Saylor from Showtime's 'Homeland') from Boise, Idaho in the late '80s to the culturally unfamiliar territory of the predominantly Latino community of McFarland, CA. Directed by Niki Caro ('Whale Rider,' 'North Country') the film ascribes to the typical hard-earned lesson of appreciating and accepting cultural and racial diversity by plopping a relatively sheltered white family down in unfamiliar territory and watching them navigate the unfamiliar waters, making the usual kinds of mistakes along the way.
On their first night in their new home, after acknowledging the colorful, pastel green paint job and mural of the Virgin Mary emblazoned on their living room wall, the Whites (a name that would be downright problematic if the narrative wasn't drawn from real life) get the full McFarland experience when they only restaurant that's open is a taqueria, meaning no burgers, just tacos. Soon after, a line of cars parade down the street, the occupants of which force the White's into an embarrassing retreat in their teal blue Jeep Cherokee.
The film spends a considerable amount of time setting up the White-family circumstances, briefly detailing Jim's past transgressions – hinting at an anger control problem that resulted in his hitting a belligerent athlete in the face with a football cleat – that have made him virtually unemployable anywhere but a truly desperate school like the one in McFarland. There's a benefit to this approach, as it puts Jim in a no way out scenario (one that Costner is pretty familiar with) where his last chance is in line with the one chance his young students have never before been given. It's convenient almost to a fault, but it works well enough it shuts up that part of your brain typically given to being overly cynical about these things. And by the time Jim is removed from his duties as the assistant football coach (for caring too much about the safety of too-small-to-be-a-linebacker Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran), the film has established the supporting cast well enough their future is more captivating than Jim's past.
That future is, of course, the cross-country team that Jim sets up partially out of boredom and partially because he sees in one of his students, Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts from FX's 'The Bridge'), an almost preternatural talent for running. As it turns out, however, Thomas' running ability isn't necessarily a genetic one; it's borne of necessity, as he, like most boys his age, spends his days literally running from the backbreaking labor in the fields to school and then back again. There's a charming moment when Jim is pacing Thomas running through a field, looking like a young Clark Kent running down a locomotive, only to have his offer of joining the cross-country team rebuffed by the untrusting Thomas.
Normally, that would be a source of conflict for any sports-themed film worth its electrolytes, but 'McFarland, USA' takes a decidedly harmonious stance for much of the film. It's shockingly easy how Jim not only starts the team (thanks to a statewide charter passed years before he'd arrived in McFarland), but also manages to keep it together, when domestic troubles with Thomas' semi-estranged father and work obligations of the three Diaz brothers (Danny, David, and Damacio) threaten to tear the burgeoning team apart. The film is so adverse to conflict, one of the major moments of conflict happens entirely off screen, leaving Jim to react retroactively in an inert moment of anger that fails to resonate because all the audience (and the characters) have to respond to is the aftermath.
The script from Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson can't quite decide whether it wants to be a typical white savior movie, a film about coming to acknowledge and accept the benefits cultural diversity, or a simple sports movie about triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. That confusion, mixed with the film's inherent aversion to conflict, and the fact that Bello and Saylor are cast in paper-thin, thankless roles leaves much to be desired. The other major problem is that everyone is simply too good. Primary characters like Jim and Thomas down the line – from the local grocer to the reformed gang members who have instead started a car club – are all virtuous in their own way, showing little in the way of depth that makes characters feel round and more human. The result, then, is a diluted sense of achievement, as the boys of the McFarland Cougars (the misspelling of which becomes a welcome source of humor in the latter part of the film) rise above any and all obstacles with relative ease.
In the end, though, 'McFarland, USA' is a film that has its heart in the right place, and even though its earnestness results in somewhat bland or too-good characters, the film at least makes them all likeable enough that the inevitable climax will leave you emotionally satiated, even though the narrative didn't necessarily do enough to earn it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'McFarland, USA' comes from Disney as a single 50GB Blu-ray Disc + Digital Download in the standard keepcase. There are several previews ahead of the top menu, all of which can be skipped.
The 1080 AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer is as bright and sunny as the film's temperament. The image is crisp, clean, and highly detailed. The image emphasizes facial features and textures in both clothing and in the environment. Each scene delivers the nearly the same clear image, making this a nearly immaculate transfer.
Colors are bright and vivid, as you'd expect. The pallet favors tans, yellows, and light browns, playing up the Californian desert climate by washing everything in golden rays of sunshine that make the slightest hint of dust dance. Reds and greens pop brilliantly, while cool blues help even the image out. Contrast is also high, keeping the aforementioned warmth of the sun from making the picture look blown out. Darkness is registered in full-bodied blacks that produce striking edges and terrific shadow delineation. The image is also free of crush or banding of any kind.
All in all, this is a near-perfect transfer that is brimming with detail and color.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix delivers clear dialogue and strong music. Sound effects are clear, but rarely emanate beyond the front right and left speaker. The center channel seems to handle the majority of the sound; again, with the two front channels picking up what little ambient noise the film has to offer.
LFE is present in both the soundtrack and when the film depicts anyone listening to music. The two are often intertwined. Still, this helps create a greater sense of depth, considering the rear channels are reserved primarily for the sound of cheering crowds and that's about it. The lack of atmospheric sound does make the film a little one-dimensional from a listening standpoint, but it manages to save itself during the climactic moments.
This isn't a bad sounding disc, in fact every scene sounds very good. It's just that many moments lack a kind of depth most would expect from a film such as this.
McFarland Reflections (HD, 9 min.) – This featurette is the most substantial of the special features. It contains interviews with the cast, filmmakers, and the real life residents the film is based on.
"Juntos" Music Video (HD, 3 min.)
Inspiring McFarland (HD, 2 min.) – An interview with the filmmakers and some of the cast summing up the film's story.
Deleted & Extended Scenes (HD, 8 min.) – This is a collection of scenes that mostly serve to round out Bello's character, and a handful of the cross-country runners.
'McFarland, USA' puts the "good" in feel good, and at times takes that notion a little too seriously. The lack of palpable conflict, and the somewhat one-dimensionality of the characters creates a story that is too easy, even though it is intended to be one of triumph over adversity. Still, the film manages to make the most of its good-naturedness in the right way, leaving the audience with a warm, sunny feeling that was achieved without asking them or anyone else to risk anything. With terrific picture and good sound, this one is worth a look.