McFarland, USA—The AllMovie Review

★ ★ ★ ½

Inspiring, true-life sports movies are a cinematic staple, and some of the best have been produced by Disney, such as Miracle, Remember the Titans, The Rookie, and The Greatest Game Ever Played. Now, the House of Mouse adds to its impressive resume with McFarland, USA, a rousing crowd pleaser about an underdog track team that can proudly takes its place among these other fine sports films.

Kevin Costner stars as Jim White, a former high-school football coach who, in 1987, moves his family from Idaho to McFarland, CA, a farm-rich but economically poor area that is predominately Latino, to accept the only teaching job he can get after he is fired due to an abusive encounter with a player on his team. As White, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), and two daughters (Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher) take up residence in their new neighborhood, they are as out of place as their name suggests. They can’t even understand how to order tacos at a local restaurant, and give in to stereotypical fears when they see a line of low-riders being driven by Mexican-Americans and assume they are gangbangers. Things aren’t any better when Jim starts teaching science and P.E. at McFarland High School while also assisting with the hapless football team. The kids continually tease him and call him ‘Blanco,’ and he’s soon forced to relinquish his gridiron duties when he has a run-in with the controlling head coach. But things start to turn around when Jim sees how fast some of the kids in his P.E. class can run, and he forms the school’s first cross-country track team with seven of the students. Their speed and athleticism, he soon discovers, are due to running a long distance each day to school after working in the agricultural fields in the early morning. But they’re not only fast; they have an ingrained work ethic, and a commitment to family and friends that pushes them to work harder than the privileged kids from elite schools they run against. Could these novice nobodies, who wear caps with their mascot’s name misspelled, actually win a state championship in cross-country?

It would be easy to dismiss McFarland, USA, as predictable and formulaic—which it is—but it’s imbued with such great heart that viewers will quickly lose themselves in its all-too-familiar tale of likely losers who achieve the seemingly impossible. Two things set the movie apart. First, there are the performances, with Costner being the anchor. The laconic actor has rarely been better than he is here. His Jim White is fatherly but flawed, strong but stubborn, and Costner slips into the role with such ease you forget you’re watching a gifted thespian at work. He’s matched by the naturalistic Bello and also by a terrific ensemble led by standout Carlos Pratts as the team’s most conflicted and best runner. Second, the movie puts a spotlight on a hardworking community that is too rarely seen onscreen. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), and screenwriters Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson are as interested in immersing us in their story’s unique locale, with its proud people and rich traditions, as they are in their runners chasing a championship. The result is first-rate entertainment that will delight moviegoers, and not just sports enthusiasts, of all ages.