“McFarland” is based on the life of Jim White, a hothead football coach who worked his way down from good paying jobs at big schools to taking an assistant coach position in McFarland, California, one of the poorest towns in America.
When we first see White (Kevin Costner) he’s hurling a cleated shoe at the lippy captain of his football team. He opens the kid’s cheek and loses his job. It’s a recurring pattern for the temperamental teacher, and the thing that lands him in McFarland. He and his family are fish-out-of-water in this mainly Latino town where jobs as “pickers” in the local fruit and vegetable fields are valued over athletic or academic achievement.
White soon notices that several of his students have a remarkable ability; they can run like the wind and strengthened by years of picking, have great physical strength and endurance. He puts together the school’s first ever cross-country track team and after a rocky start—placing last in their first meet—and not so hidden racism from other teams—“Bet they can’t run without a cop behind them and a Taco Bell in front of them.”—White teaches the seven runners how to be champions while they teach him a thing or two about dedication, loyalty and family.
There’s nothing in “McFarland” we haven’t seen in a hundred other sports movies. The underdog-pulling-themselves-up-by-the-bootstraps may be a potent source of drama but it is a familiar one, so it’s hard to get too excited about “McFarland’s” story arc, even if it is tarted up with American Dream messaging about the virtues of heart and hard work. It’s not just a sports movie, it’s an ode to what it is to be American—family + heart = success! They even sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at one point.
“McFarland” is a standard issue inspiration coach movie. White—or “Blanco” as his students call him, inspires the runners but, in a twist, they inspire him to let go of his preconceptions about success and family. On one hand the lack of cynicism is refreshing but it feels a bit old fashioned, like an afterschool special with a bigger budget.