Although the "Great White Hope" overtones are troubling, McFarland, USA trumps the racism of its antagonists with sports team-building.
McFarland, USADirector: Niki Caro
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Johnny Ortiz, Hector Duran
Studio: Walt Disney
US Release Date: 2015-02-20
Until they hit upon the college capering of Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, Disney didn't have much success in the live action arena. Oh sure, their documentaries earned Oscar kudos, and they could churn out a classic or two (Mary Poppins, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) when need be, but for the most part, said division was more Grayfriars Bobby than Old Yeller. Once the former child star stepped up and saved the company's fortunes, the House of Mouse was back in the game.
Of course, as quickly as they amassed a reputation in the non-animated field, their rate of success regressed. Soon, just like their cartoon creativity, they saw limited returns on their corporate brand. It's taken a while, but Walt's workers have found a new film formula to bank on. Call it "the inspirational true life sports story", best served by examples such as Miracle, The Rookie, Million Dollar Arm, and now, McFarland USA. While it's yet another instance in that long line of Great White Bwana helping people of color cinematic clichés, the acting and approach are so welcoming we don't care about such personal disparities.
Kevin Costner is the fittingly named Jim White. He's a former football coach and teacher whose current fortunes find him in the migrant worker outpost known as McFarland, California. Hoping to restart his sports dreams at a new school, he quickly learns that the locals aren't much into athletics, but a few are especially fast runners. Before you can say "state champions", White has collected together a mostly Hispanic team of quality cross-country competitors. While learning the ways of their harsh daily existence, his footpath protégés soon come face to face with the subtle racism that comes from their spoiled suburban competitors. With success come some disruptive spoils.
Yes, this is another example of "Great White Hope". But thanks to the work of director Niki Caro (who made the excellent Whale Runner) and the script's desire to turn the tables on Costner and his culture shock, the impact of such genre truisms are minimal at best. This isn't a film about a white guy saving a bunch of Latinos. Instead, it's a story of people helping people, their nationality and ethnicity playing only a minor role in the mandatory self-actualization. The rest of the time it's pristine running sequences, all leading up to the big contest which will determine the fate of all involved -- or something like that.
At a certain level, the struggles of an athlete are highly anti-cinematic. Most problems are internal, and therefore not the most meaningful when it comes to visualizing competition. So it makes sense that Caro films her races with an attention to detail and scope. We become involved in the back and forth, the subtle strategizing and necessary endurance to take one's body across such long distances. We also appreciate the old fashioned work ethic and dedication required. Because of the setting, one is tempted to treat this movie like Stand and Deliver, an attempt to explain the fringes of society to the rest of the dying middle class. But Caro skips the big picture for more intimate insights.
Costner is really coming into his own during the mostly uncalculated career second act. Instead of the A-list movie star with the A-list demands, he's become a kind of character actor, taking on projects which promote his primary skill set, acting, without going overboard into fame-grabbing TMZ territory. Put another way, Costner is no longer in a position, professionally, to fire Caro from the film and take over a la Waterworld. His low key presence is perfect, making White's tendency to fly off the handle emotionally (and, as a result, get fired from his jobs) all the more potent. The rest of the cast is decent if deceptively old to be in high school -- some of these ostensible adolescents are really in their late 20s.
There's also a polite, PC quality about the inherent racism such a situation might cause. No one is slurred, and when comments like "Are we in Mexico?" are made, the characters make sure to redirect the conversation away from any possible ethnic bias. We aren't dealing with "illegals" here, or people trying to play the government for free handouts. Instead, McFarland is portrayed as honest, hardworking, and humble. When the suburban schools show up with their noses in the air, it's the team's intensity and agility that win out, not a sudden parsing of prejudice.
Sure, Disney doctors things -- name a movie currently in the Best Picture race "based" on a true story that doesn't. But here, thanks again to Caro, the liberties are likeable. We don't mind the manipulation, only because it gets to the heart of why we go to the movies. Films like McFarland, USA provide a kind of competitive catharsis, a way of allowing the non-athlete and the non-bigot to see power and strength overcome implied hate and feel good about the world. It's not a question of "white shame" or guilt. Instead, Caro comes to this material through the characters, making sure they stand front and center over the more obvious issues involved.
Over forty years ago, the farthest the House of Mouse would go with material like this is something akin to The World's Greatest Athlete. A borderline hate crime, that movie makes a white wonder from "darkest Africa" into a US college superhero, complete with bad F/X, a witch doctor villain, and asides into the supernatural. They would never have made a movie like McFarland, USA. That this works in 2015 is a miracle. That films like this one are finding an audience is testament to the company's commercial mindset, and their ability to deliver.