McFarland USA– A Feel Good Classic

You have to give him credit, Kevin Costner is good at sports movies (see e.g. Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Tin Cup etc.). In terms of recreating on film a true and inspirational story, McFarland USA is his very best sports film. In this film Costner plays coach Jim White, who creates out of nothing a cross country team composed of seven young poor fieldworkers from McFarland Calif. a small mostly Hispanic town in the San Joaquin valley.

They say the best stories are the true ones, and this one is true, and took place in 1987, after White and his family moved to McFarland from Boise, where he had been a coach who got fired for striking a player. The focus of the film is on White’s relationship with the seven boys who make up the first ever cross-country team at a school which cannot afford such a luxury. So the parents do bake sales and car washes to raise money for uniforms and trips to meets. White has to adjust to Hispanic life, and the rugged existence of boys who pick in the fields from 5 a.m. then go to school, then go back to the fields in the evenings, then try to do their schoolwork or practice running.

Though White had never been a track coach before, he saw toughness and some speed in several of these boys, and thought he could train them to compete in a sport that was not rough and did not require large money outlays for equipment and the like. The story is an amazing one because that 1987 team not only won some meets, they won the state cross country championship in the very first year they entered, and against elite well funded school teams. It is moving that despite many offers to coach elsewhere, White stayed in McFarland, and went on to win nine state titles before retiring in 2003. He still lives there.

There are many things to like about this movie besides the fact that it is yet another underdog triumphs through hard work tale. For one thing, the movie handles with some skill and sensitivity the issue of the Hispanic subculture within various parts of America, and sheds a largely positive light on it. For another thing, this is a truly good family film, about Coach White’s family and the families of the seven boys. White has to learn to adjust to their ways of life, and affirm their culture.

McFarland USA is a nice depiction of the value of diversity in America, and how it enriches rather than endangers our country, because of course we are inherently an immigrant country which believes in the American dream– that given a chance, anyone can better themselves if they work hard and are honest and do their best. I especially appreciated the subplot about Coach White and his best runner who was struggling with some family problems. The movie does not sugarcoat the problems, but it shows how one can overcome them.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film as a family friendly film. It avoids bad language, gratuitous violence and sex, and even if you are not a sports fan, the triumph of the human spirit in this film is inspiring and worth cheering. All the boys on this cross country team went on to college, and to run track in college, being the first boys to ever go to college in each of their families. It is an impressive film, and it makes you proud to be an American of any sort.