Movie review: Kevin Costner helps make ‘McFarland, USA’ a good movie –

Pop quiz, part one: When was the last time you saw a strong performance by Kevin Costner? Last year’s “Black or White?” “Man of Steel” from the year before? The woefully underrated “The Upside of Anger” almost a decade ago? Or do you stubbornly go all the way back to “Dances with Wolves,” about a quarter of a century ago? OK, it was a trick question. Costner gives it his all, and is usually terrific, in pretty much everything he does.
Pop quiz, part two: When was the last time Kevin Costner was in a great movie? This is where things get complicated. The above-mentioned movies are all worth watching, and, yeah, “Dances with Wolves” won a slew of Oscars. For the record, my favorite Costner performance and film is “3,000 Miles to Graceland,” a nasty, violent piece of work (and box office flop) in which he played an absolutely heinous villain, something you don’t get to see him do too often.
Which brings us to “McFarland, USA,” a film I sat down at with trepidation. Oh, jeez, another based-on-fact sports film about underdog kids – this time it’s a high school cross country track team – who, under the vigilant direction of a well-meaning coach (who’s also an underdog of sorts), scratch their way up from the bottom toward some sort of unachievable goal. Even before the opening credits ran, I was grumpily awaiting for the requisite slo-mo sequence of young, unskilled runners huffing and puffing their way up difficult hills.
And I got exactly what I expected (slo-mo, and all), but I also got a lot more that I didn’t expect. Jim White (Costner) is fired from what’s apparently a string of teaching/football coaching jobs for once again losing his temper. He and his wife and two daughters again pack up and move, this time getting a new start in the dirt-poor, Mexican-American-centric town of McFarland, California, the only place, due to past behavior, where Jim can find a teaching-coaching job.
The running gag is that the family’s name is white, and they’re the only white folks in town. But the running is no gag. After Jim is removed as assistant coach from the football team (squabbles with the jerk of a head coach), he notices that a lot of the high school kids in town do a lot of running, and are good at it. They run from their homes to help pick crops in the fields, then they run to school, then they run home. Hey, he thinks, why doesn’t this school have a cross country track team?
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He convinces the school’s overworked, understaffed, good-humored principal (Valente Rodriguez) to let him try. He convinces a troubled, uninterested student named Thomas (Carlos Pratts) to join the team, then gets the needed six additional members, including the out-of-shape Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), who provides some comic relief and well as inspiration.
Everything seems to be falling in place as a standard, cookie-cutter high school sports movie. And plenty of that is on display. But this also has an edge over most others in the genre. Part of it has to do with Costner’s performance. He’s always been great at playing the determined Everyman who wants to do a combination of helping others and making things right. Here he’s dealing with kids who have problems at home and no dreams of a better life, as well as trying to balance his own family situation with the demands of his job, while also trying to overcome past problems with his temper. Costner’s playing an interesting and complicated person. And fans need not worry; near the end he gets to do his little motivational pep talk, something he must have written in his contract for every movie he makes.
This is a very good film, but not a great one, and it has strong characterization from Costner, as well as most of the young actors around him. The only things that bothered me are that Maria Bello isn’t given enough to do as Costner’s wife, and that the writers felt the need to throw in a few moments of not very dramatic peril that get in the way of, rather than add to, the almost relentlessly upbeat attitude of the film.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson; directed by Niki Caro
With Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Valente Rodriguez
Rated PG


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