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‘MacFarland, USA’: Feel good sports film

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media

Latinos constitute 17 percent of the U.S. population and 32 percent of frequent moviegoers. However, major Hollywood studios are planning to release just a single film with Latinos in central roles on 2015. It’s “MacFarland, USA”

The film takes its title from the setting in a small, agrarian town in southern, inland California. Despite its quintessentially WASP name, the location  is populated overwhelmingly by Mexican immigrants and their progeny.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach in Boise, Idaho, circa 1987. An opening scene takes place in the locker room during half-time. White is trying to deliver a pep talk, when he notices his star quarterback is snickering. Agitated by the player’s lack of focus, he hurls a shoe at the locker next to the lad. Unfortunately, it caroms off the locker and hits the quarterback in the head. It doesn’t take long before White is fired.

It turns out that this isn’t the first time that White has been canned. Indeed, it is the latest in a series of terminations.  White doesn’t have many options. Desperate for work, he reluctantly accepts an unattractive job at a MacFarland, California high school. It is located next door to a sprawling  prison. White is hired to serve as the assistant football coach and teach science.

White uproots his family; blonde wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and two blonde daughters, 14-year old Julie (Morgan Saylor) and pre-teen, Jamie (Elise Fischer) and makes a cross country trek to MacFarland. Upon arrival, he and his family are overwhelmed by a sense of being culturally alienated. One of his perplexed daughters asks, “Are we in Mexico?”

White and his hungry family visit a local restaurant, intent upon ordering hamburgers. However, they are advised that the establishment serves tacos and tamales. He indignantly stalks out with his family in tow.

Once outside the restaurant, White sees Latinos everywhere he turns. Hailing from white-bread Idaho, he reflexively regards these Latinos as a menace to his family. What exactly is their crime? Well  — they’re speaking Spanish and have darker complexions. For good measure, they aren’t blond. Isn’t that enough to justify his deep-seated distrust of them?

Once home, White tells his wife that he isn’t going to expose his family to the perils of living among Latinos. She points out that after being fired from a series of jobs, he has run out of viable options.

White immediately clashes with the head football coach, who insists that he can’t work with the headstrong newcomer. To placate the head coach, the principal (Valente Rodriguez) removes White from his position on the football squad. So, in quick succession, White goes from being a head football coach to an assistant coach to a non-coach. He is reassigned to the teaching phys ed. White bristles at being relegated to the lowly position.

White notices that several of the male students are blessed with natural endurance as runners. This stamina is a byproduct of their picking produce under the blistering heat.

White has an epiphany. He will form a cross-country team. When White broaches the idea to the school’s principal, he is greeted by skepticism. After all, isn’t cross country a sport dominated by affluent, well-funded, white schools? How about the fact that White has no experience coaching the sport?

Undaunted, White recruits a septet of Mexican-Americans students to start a fledgling cross-country team. The fastest is Thomas (Carlos Pratts from “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), who is plagued with family problems at home. On the other end of the continuum is the team’s corpulent slowpoke, Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez). What Danny lacks in speed, he makes up for in heart.

Kevin Costner has had a decidedly uneven filmmography.  In 1990, Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” garnered an Oscar nomination for him as actor. The Academy bestowed a gold statuette on Costner as best director and another on the film as the best of the year. However, Costner garnered Razzies as worst actor in “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves,” “Waterworld,” and “The Postman.” For the latter film, he also earned a Razzie as worst director.

Throughout his career, Costner’s innate athleticism has enabled him to convincingly portray sports figures. He has been cast in five baseball-themed films (“Chasing Dreams,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “For Love of the Game,” and “The Upside of Anger”) as well as a single foray into playing a pro golfer (“Tin Cup”). Now 60, Costner has transitioned to playing a savvy general manager of a NFL franchise in last year’s “Draft Day” and here as a beleaguered cross-country coach. The key to Costner’s performance in “MacFarland, USA” is his begrudging transition from passive racist to a more enlightened status.

This is the fifth feature film, for New Zealand director, Niki Caro. In “Whale Rider” and “North Country,” Caro displayed skill depicting the gender challenges faced by a young Maori girl and an adult female iron mine employee respectively. In “MacFarland, USA”, she adroitly provides a sympathetic view of Latino produce pickers.  Without proselytizing, the film  conveys the notion that these hard-working laborers are underpaid and exploited. Admittedly, the film lacks the gravitas of “Caesar Chavez” or A Better Life.” However, “MacFarland, USA” is a film, which will be receive a release in multiplexes. As such, it has the potential to reach  a wider viewership and thereby serve as a catalyst for a more dramatic shift in Anglo attitudes.

“MacFarland, USA” is based on a true story. The film’s verisimilitude is buttressed by an epilogue, which shows the erstwhile members of the high school cross-country team, who remain involved in long-distance running.

Despite being encumbered with a surfeit of genre clichés, “MacFarland, USA” is an eminently likable and genuinely inspirational film.

*** PG (for thematic material, some violence and language) 128 minutes

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "McFarland, USA" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdMX-zSaRno

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “McFarland, USA” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdMX-zSaRno

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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