McFarland USA is openly inspirational, and even throws in race into its tale of underdogs achieving greatness. If the characters had been white, it would have just been another 'sports will lead to greatness films'. However, the characters are Hispanic, which gives it more uplift because we have poor minority kids rising to greatness (mostly). This isn't meant to be a diss on McFarland USA. It has plenty of humor and lots of heart, which always makes for a good combination. I enjoyed the film, found it truthful about how Mexican-American culture works, and was interested in how the characters overcame. It might be a familiar story, but it told with sincerity, which makes it much better than one might give it credit for.
Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who has fallen from grace. Not strictly assaulting an arrogant player at an elite school, he takes the only job he can find: assistant at a McFarland, California high school. His family is shocked to find themselves in the barrio, so much so that one of his daughters asks if they are in Mexico. They might as well be, given the panic they all have when the get to their new house. It has murals in it, and the local eatery has nothing but tacos. Worse, cholos are all about, sending them into WASPy panic.
White observes two things. One, almost all the McFarland High School staff and students don't care about much, seeing either the fields where they pick fruit or the nearby prison as the student's real future. The prison is almost literally next door (makes it convenient don't you think). Two, some of the track members can run real, real fast. Chief among the speed runners is Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts, no relation to Chris Pratt). He comes up with an innovative idea: a cross-country team. This shocks the administration: cross-country tends to be an upper-class sport. He might as well have asked to form a polo team. However, White prevails and gets Valles, the three Diaz brothers (Damacio, David, and Danny), the too-cool-for-anything Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar) and Johnny Samaniego (Victor Duran), a bit on the scrawny side whom White saved from getting more injured when trying to play football.
The McFarland High School cross-country team faces all sorts of obstacles. There's the bigotry and contempt they face from their Anglo counterparts who can't imagine these Mexicans being able to run (except to the Taco Bell or away from Immigration). There's the pressure from families, some of whom think this is a waste of time better spent working the fields. Then there is their own tumultuous private lives, filled with domestic issues.
White however, soon starts winning the boys over, and the community starts winning over the Whites. Jim's wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) even becomes friends with a local manicurist, who helps her integrate into the Hispanic world (and gives her a good manicure as well as car help through her boyfriend). Their oldest daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) gets a quinceanera (a traditional fifteenth birthday/coming out party) courtesy of the community, who does this when they learn she just turned fifteen and are shocked the Whites didn't give their daughter her "quince". Julie and Thomas even fancy each other. The White's younger daughter Jamie (Elsie Fisher) has taken the mural in her home to heart and won't contemplate having it painted over.
Eventually, the McFarland team does well enough to slowly start competing for the first State Championship. The entire McFarland community, including the previously reluctant parents, come to see them compete, and we learn the fates of the McFarland team. Jim White is still in McFarland, having coached the team to several victories. Some of the original track team members went on to careers in education and law enforcement, though at least one did do prison time.
As I watched McFarland, USA, I did see a very entertaining true-life story. I found that it is quite accurate in terms of Hispanic culture. Of particular note was when Mrs. Diaz (Diana Maria Riva) had Mr. White over for dinner. To his shock, she keeps piling on enchiladas upon enchiladas on his plate, to the amusement of the Diaz Brothers, who know not only that he's not used to this, but that he's far too polite to turn her down. It culminates with her presenting a Tupperware container full of enchiladas, telling him it's for his family. Tapping the lid, she tells him to bring the Tupperware back.
Having seen and experienced this myself at home and with friends, I can vouch for the accuracy of how Mexican mothers can be.
Granted, there are things that rubbed me the wrong way. They might actually have happened, but I for one have never been given a chicken as a housewarming gift. The quinceaneras I have been too have never had any shootings or threats of shootings (and for the record, I think Julie's dress was far too short for such an event, but I digress).
However, more positive than negative I found the whole thing. One scene that stuck with me was when White went with the Diazes to the fields to work them. He finds that it is hard work, and that they aren't paid by the pound or even the number of I think lettuce they pick. They are paid by the acre. After a few hours, he's exhausted and pretty beat up physically. It made me think of all those who find Hispanics working the fields to be some kind of drain on American society, that "them Mexicans" are stealing "real Americans" jobs. I have never picked fruit or cotton or anything myself, but I'd like all those who find Latino field workers so odious to try it for a day or two (complete with wages) and see how THEY like it. Maybe they'll find the whole thing much more complicated than they wish to portray it.
It's not a pro or anti-immigration (legal/illegal) statement. Everyone in McFarland, USA is a citizen. It's a recognition that White gets: these kids lives are tougher than he can imagine, filled with both hope and lack thereof at the same time.
The performances were all quite good. Costner has an excellent range: fear for his family, frustration that his career is where it's at, humor in his clash of cultures, and encouragement to his team (as all good inspirational sports films have). Pratts, who got good marks for Season One of The Bridge, also does well as the main track star Valles. He has the domestic drama mixed in with the attitude that running isn't going to get him far, only to find that he might be wrong.
In fairness, Bello had not much to do apart from being a supportive wife, but she made the most of what she had.
McFarland, USA has inspiration, a good dose of humor, and a pretty respectful treatment of Hispanics (always a plus in my book). Being Hispanic myself I found the film close to the truth, and I liked the subplot with manicurist Lupe (Martha Higareda) and her mechanic boyfriend Javi (Rigo Sanchez), who painted his lowrider with her face as the Virgin of Guadalupe on the hood of his car. To its infinite credit, the Whites apologized to Javi for suspecting him of dangerous thoughts when they met for the first time (something we don't see often: an acknowledgement of stereotypes). They were funny and endearing, the kind of people I'd like to know.
Is McFarland, USA a 'white savior' film (where the Anglo character comes to rescue the poor minority unable to help itself and needing the noble white man to pick up his burden)? I don't know. It is based on a true-life story. Some might find that whole idea troubling. I find that the film concentrates more on the cross-country team than on White rescuing them from a life of misery (though I figure a case could be made for that). On the whole I found McFarland, USA funny, moving, generally true, and inspirational.
In short, I found it worth taking the long-distance journey with.