Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cross-Country & Cross Cultures

Disney has just released McFarland USA, a feel-good film about the power of sports to transform not only the participants, but also an entire town. Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a disgraced football coach who takes the only job he can find after his temper gets him fired - teaching at the high school in a predominantly Mexican-American agricultural town in central California. His students are indifferent to education, knowing that their future - and their present - lies in the fields that surround the dusty town. They pick from dawn until the school bell rings and return to the fields as soon as school lets out for the day - and they have tremendous stamina, speed, and (yes) grit developed from years of such a back-breaking schedule. White (yes, the name is both accurate and ironic, as the White family appears to be just about the only Caucasians in the entire town) sees an opportunity in the fleet-footed students and gets approval to start a cross-country team.

It would have been easy to make McFarland a tale of the Great White Savior rescuing the youth of a dead-end town through the power of sports. Fortunately, McFarland is more nuanced that that, although it takes some liberties with the truth, as these types of films so often do. White's got problems of his own and the film does a nice job of showing White's own missteps as he learns to swim in these unfamiliar waters. The culture of this town is so unlike anything the White family knows, but that in no way means it's inferior. Two lovely scenes illustrate my point here - first, when Jim White receives a housewarming gift of a chicken and later, a gorgeous scene in which the community (primarily the women) come together to throw Julie White a quinceanera with all the trimmings after Jim admits that he sort of forgot to even pick up a birthday cake for his daughter. The residents of McFarland are proud, hardworking people and it's good to see those values celebrated instead of disintegrating into a shouting match about immigrants and just who counts as a "real" American (a discussion I feel the Cherokee and Sioux [among others] might have some rather strong opinions on).

McFarland is a feel-good sports movie in the best tradition of the genre (I'm looking at you, Hoosiers and Remember the Titans). I found myself muttering, "Dig! Dig!" to cheer on the runners during the race scenes and I so wanted a happy ending for these kids. It's a solid effort - Costner inhabits the role of Jim White with ease and grace while both Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles and Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny Diaz are particular standouts. McFarland is a lovely reminder that sports really can be a true source of character-building and justifiable pride. Go see this one. It'll make you want to lace up your sneakers and go for a run, even if it's just around the block. And whatever you do, don't leave before the epilogue.

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