MCFARLAND USA Review: Chariots of Mire
It’s Spirits and Oscar Weekend, what I consider to be the official close of the film year (in this case, 2014). Since many films see only a limited release late in their eligibility year (to qualify for awards ballots), there is much to be watched in the early weeks of the following year to catch up on what industry insiders have already seen. And because each film is considered awards bait, many of them tend to be heavy stuff. Themes of just some of the 2014 awards fodder I’ve watched in the first six weeks of 2015 include: race relations, animal poaching, early onset Alzheimer’s, organized crime, discrimination based on sexual orientation, and Hobbits. Oh, those Hobbits.
All these weighty tales have me yearning for something a little fluffier. Hellooooooo Disney and your based-on-actual-events, feel-good-sports-story McFarland USA.
It’s 1987 and Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school teacher and coach with something of a temper. In fact, his temper has cost him enough jobs to force him to take whatever job he can get to provide for his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and their daughters. That “whatever” turns out to be a P.E. teaching gig at McFarland High, a school in the near-exclusively Latino town of McFarland, CA. Struggling to fit in and not making a great early impression, Jim feels like life has him on the ropes … until he watches some of the boys in his P.E. class run. And can they run.
Seeing them inspires Jim to start a cross-country track team at the school, an idea that presents new challenges, most notably the boys’ availability to train. They are all “pickers” – field workers who pick crops for a living in the morning hours before school and in the evening hours after, all in the name of helping to provide for their families. But they are a dedicated team, and after a disappointing debut, the runners and their coach redouble their training and dedication. That’s when they start finding success.
I don’t recall exactly when, but there was a moment in the overlong 128-minute McFarland USA when I realized I wasn’t watching a sports movie – I was watching a collection of moments one might find in a sports movie, strung together to create something reminiscent of a sports movie. The film doesn’t start this way, though.
In fact, it starts with solid potential. Kevin Costner, star of some of the great sports movies of the last 40 years (Field of Dreams; Bull Durham; Tin Cup), finds himself in a role that is perfect for him: that of the aged coach. His Jim White character isn’t drawn this way, but because it’s Costner, you get the sense that he is a once-glorious athlete who never made it to The Show, so he has spent his life trying to maintain that pre-failure glory by living vicariously through subsequent generations. He never reminisces about glory days, but there is a fading gleam in his eye that suggests a once-fiery spark. Sadly, that potential is never built upon.
What follows those promising opening minutes – courtesy of writers Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, and screenwriter Grant Thompson – is a string of shoddily-drafted clichés, plot conveniences, and half-thoughts that feel like they were randomly selected from a box of sports film screenwriting flashcards.
It begins with flimsy characters in Jim’s personal life. Cheryl serves only as the doting wife who is there for him to talk to so it doesn’t look like he is talking to himself. His older daughter, Julie (Morgan Saylor), is THAT teen – the one who complains about their lot in life, the one whose birthday Daddy misses. Their other, younger daughter is the fourth wheel.
As for the team of seven runners, other than the fact they are all “pickers” (something we are endlessly reminded of throughout the film), only two really stand out. One, Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), is memorable for being the slowest runner (essentially because he’s the fattest). The other, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), is the one Latino character, in a film full of Latino characters, who is given the most screenwriting flashcards: he’s the best runner; he has a woefully contrived teen romance with Julie that is only worthy of about three scenes; and he has daddy issues that are also only worthy of about three scenes.
The rest of the cast is central casting material: the underfunded school principal; the grocery store owner; the neighbor with the chickens; the nail stylist; the Latin matriarch who cooks too much and bosses Coach around like he’s her own son; the car club members mistaken for gang bangers.
Cue humor built on cultural differences, that moment when Coach has an epiphany about his life choices, and a pair of late, second act subplots designed for no other reason that to create inflammatory conflict, and you have a whole lot of nothing special.
But beyond all of this, the greatest sin committed here is by Niki Caro and her leaden direction. The film, which is supposed to be about young men rising above their rough lots in life to do this greater thing, fails to draw any inspiration from that whatsoever. Never is there a moment that elicits the desire to cheer for these young men because most of the running scenes – from training sessions to the climactic race at the end – look like cross country b-roll clips you might see playing on a giant TV at a runner’s expo.
The story of the McFarland runners is an inspirational one, but McFarland USA isn’t an inspirational sports movie. The runners win some but with no real thrill of victory. The runners lose some but with no real agony of defeat. There is only running and picking, occasionally interrupted by attempts at drama and humor, and all of it completely devoid of any sustained excitement or tension.