Saturday movie review: McFarland USA

My oldest daughter ran cross-country for a bit in high school, and she and her two sisters all enjoy running events of various sorts still as adults. Which means I knew a little something about the cross-country sport going into MCFARLAND USA, based on the true story of one of the most incredible teams in cross-country history. You need not know a single thing about the sport, though, in order to enjoy and appreciate—as well as root for—MCFARLAND USA.

mcfarland usa movie

MCFARLAND USA is set in 1987 and stars Kevin Costner as the real-life Jim White, a down on his luck (because of his temper) football coach whose last option for employment is at a predominantly Latino school in McFarland, California, known as one of the poorest towns in America. White moves his wife (Maria Bello) and daughters to the economically challenged town where the culture seems foreign, where many of the students work in the fields as "pickers" before or after school. (Their primary crop to pick: almonds, as McFarland is home to Blue Diamond Almonds.) The town's kids are destined to be the next in a long line of generations that have eked out a meager living in the hot and dry climate, not even considering to hope for more.

Jim White shows them more, though, when he sees the potential in the pickers, sees how athletic they are, how fast they run. He starts a cross-country team filled with reluctant team members. Coach White and the team learn together the sport of cross-country... and a heck of a lot more. They learn about preconceived notions and judgements, about friendship, about family.

The rest is history... but I won't spoil it for you by sharing that history. Just be sure to watch through to the credits to see updates on the team, the players, and Coach White.

I enjoyed MCFARLAND USA far more than I expected I would. The acting was solid, not only by Costner and Bello but especially by the young men who played the runners, none of whom I'd seen in films before. According to Disney press materials, three out of the seven young actors on the team are actually from the McFarland area—Sergio Avelar who plays Victor Puentes and Michael Aguero, cast as Damacio Diaz, are actual runners and Ramiro Rodriguez, as Danny Diaz, was a champion soccer player.

Another trivia tidbit from Disney: The "hero-car" lowrider vehicle featured in the movie actually belongs to director Niki Caro. She regularly drives the classic 1970s Chevrolet Caprice, which was customized to the movie’s specifications and features an iconic chain steering wheel and a mural on the hood in the likeness of the owner’s girlfriend in the film, Lupe. (The painting in the style of the Virgin of Guadalupe is an ongoing visual theme in the movie.)

I was inspired by the humor and heart of MCFARLAND USA. I laughed out loud, I teared up a few times, and I (silently but fervently) cheered on the little team that could. The true story and the real-life characters inspired me most, though, and made me consider some of the assumptions we all make about folks who come from different cultures and economic circumstances than ours and how much we miss out by those preconceived notions and judgements.

After the credits rolled, I mentioned to Jim (who, along with Andrea, attended the free screening with me) that as amazing as the story of the McFarland Cougars is, you'd think we would have known something about it. Of course, this is the kind of story you rarely see in the national news, though it surely had to have made big news in California... many years running. Thankfully someone thought to make a film of it so we could all be inspired by the unexpected champions of McFarland, regardless of where we live, regardless of what we know about cross-country running.


MCFARLAND USA (rated PG "for thematic material, some violence and language") opened in theaters yesterday, February 20. For more information, visit the MCFARLAND USA Facebook page.

Disclosure: I was invited to a free screening of this film; all opinions are my own.