Underdogs Win in “McFarland USA”
By Skip Sheffield
America loves underdogs. America loves sports. America loves Kevin Costner, who hasn’t had a good film role in many moons.
These are three things “McFarland USA” has going for it. Oh, and it is a true story based on real-life people who accomplish amazing feats.
Kevin Costner is Jim White, a bad-tempered high school football coach. In the first scene we see him get fired from his latest job for yelling at a boy and throwing something at him, drawing blood.
It is August, 1987, and White is just about out of job options. He packs up his long-suffering wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), his daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) and moves to the central California “Fruit and Vegetable Capital of America,” McFarland.
The girls are none too thrilled about this.
“Please tell me you took the wrong exit,” whines Julie.
McFarland is one of the poorest towns in America. Its population is about 90 percent Mexican and most of them are “pickers” engaged in the back-breaking work of picking fruits and vegetables by hand, sorting and packing them.
White, whose last name is particularly ironic, bombs out right away as football coach. Rather than firing him or having him quit, the Principal (Valente Rodriguez) suggests he try to organize a cross-country track team. White had absolutely zero experience with track, but he noticed the Mexican boys, who run to school after picking early in the morning, run fast and have stamina. So begins McFarland High School’s rag-tag seven-man cross country team, captained by the fastest, Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), and anchored by chubby Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez). Three of the boys are from the same Diaz family: David (Rafael Martinez), Damacio (Michael Aguero) and Danny, and they get flak from their father (Omar Leyva), who thinks the picking should come first.
“McFarland” is both about the building of a miracle team and the assimilation of an Anglo family into a Chicano culture. A breakthrough comes when Julie turns 15, and the townspeople throw her “Quinceanera” coming-of-age party.
Kevin Costner comes from a hardscrabble, blue-collar family, and he is ideally-suited to play the struggling, temperamental coach who ultimately wins the respect of his team and school officials. Stay to the very end of the film and you will see the satitisfying happy endings of everyone involved.
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