Cross-country drama 'McFarland, USA' outruns sports formula

 
 
Updated 2/19/2015 2:36 PM
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  • New cross country coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) gives his Hispanic runners a pep talk in Niki Caro's formula sports underdog drama "McFarland, USA."

    New cross country coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) gives his Hispanic runners a pep talk in Niki Caro's formula sports underdog drama "McFarland, USA."

The most galvanizing event in "McFarland, USA" occurs when a group of celebratory Hispanics comes under attack by knife-wielding assailants.

The first thing the Hispanics do? Form a human shield around a teenage white girl riding with them, because she's the daughter of the high school's cross-country coach they have grown to respect and love, and they will protect her as if she were their own.

This pivotal scene is important, because it confirms the community of McFarland has embraced the white outsider and his family. Except that we never see that scene.

We find out about it through a conversation between the coach, Jim White (Kevin Costner) and his upset wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), who arrive on the scene after the fact.

Presumably, Walt Disney's family-friendly framework precluded anything but a PG rating for the fact-based "McFarland, USA," and knife-fights don't fit into the studio's familiar, inspirational sports underdog movie formula, rigorously followed here.

"McFarland, USA" also rigorously follows another formula, that for "white savior" movies -- most fact-based -- where white protagonists enter into a minority's world, then protect downtrodden minority members and teach them how to achieve success or a sense of self-worth.

Costner has a far more complex savior to play here than he did as a cavalry officer in "Dances With Wolves." After his temper gets him fired as a football coach, White winds up in the titular southern California town with Cheryl and his two daughters.

"Is this Mexico?" one asks as they cruise downtown.

At first, the sight of locals driving around low and slow threatens White. At school, he has a rough time as an assistant football coach with the Hispanic student body.

Then, White sees a student running across a field. White clocks his speed. The kid can really move! So can the other students who race on foot to school every morning after waking up at 4:30 a.m. to work as "pickers" in the fields.

Inspired, White makes an offer that the principal (Valente Rodriguez, a paragon of intelligent confidence) doesn't refuse. White will recruit a cross-country team, even though he's never run in the sport or coached it.

The rest of "McFarland, USA" amounts to standard-issue underdog sports drama stuff. The gathering of the team. The tough practices. The coach keeping the team together through personal crises. The state championship looming as proud townspeople hook their hearts on hope.

"McFarland, USA" comes from New Zealand director Niki Caro and a screenplay by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois (who wrote the 2006 white savior sports drama "Glory Road") with Grant Thompson.

Caro, known mostly for the excellent "Whale Rider," finds frequent flourishes of freshness in this friendly formula by giving runners time to develop characters, especially the troubled, short-tempered Thomas (a standout Carlos Pratts) and the team's lovable, overweight mascot Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez).

This movie still belongs to Jim White, a good man who really does walk a mile in other men's shoes by going to work with his runners and gaining a whole new respect for the hardness of their lives.

Here, frequent sports movie star Costner slips into his character with such effortless ease that he leapfrogs over performing and goes right into being. His coach waxes with weathered, wise, weary and watchable gravitas.

At a lengthy 128 minutes, "McFarland, USA" runs well past its finish line, and a tepid rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the state contest oozes measured patriot treacle.

Manipulative? Sure. Inspirational? It's all part of the formula.

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