The sport movie is a tired and formulaic genre, and no film proves this more than “McFarland, U.S.A.” While watching, I couldn’t help but think of another sports film, “Foxcatcher.” Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but I think it highlights an important aspect of filmmaking: Intent. Bennett Miller took the story of John DuPont’s relationship with the Schultz brothers and made it scary, sad, and beautiful all at once. Niki Caro took the story of the 1987 McFarland High School cross-country team and made it uninteresting, uninspired, and dumb. For what it’s worth, Caro likely made exactly the film she wanted, which begs the question: what the hell is the point of purposefully making a boring, generic movie?
Kevin Costner is Jim White, a football coach who is fired after accidentally hurting a player. Desperate for work, Jim moves his family to McFarland, a small California farming community. White immediately notices the speed and conditioning of his gym students and establishes a school cross-country team made up of seven kids, most notably Thomas Valles and Danny Diaz, the latter of which is the butt of many fat jokes throughout the film.
McFarland is impoverished; one student remarks, “We don’t even have a K-mart.” A colleague of Jim’s informs him that it’s one of the poorest towns in America. This is all set up for the inevitable underdog story, the rise and eventual victory of the lower class over the entitled upper class that populates the rival cross country teams. It is a victory that is predetermined. I doubt there was a single audience member in attendance that thought McFarland wouldn’t win the state championship. It’s a tale told and retold, around which countless movies have been slapped together for decades.
There’s a scene early in the movie where Jim and his family enter a restaurant looking for dinner. It’s a hole-in-the-wall type place, small, a few tables and chairs, the kitchen and dining room separated by nothing more than the register. The cashier reads them a menu of Mexican cuisine, only for Jim to clumsily inquire, “Got any burgers?” It’s more than slightly ridiculous that Jim and his family might be alienated by tacos, yet the film seems dedicated to creating a racial barrier for the characters to break. It’s also ridiculous that every single runner the McFarland Cougars compete against is white.
Costner is no stranger to sports movies, and he performs his part admirably, albeit partly stale and repetitive. His is a familiar arc, so much so that we know his initial apprehension will turn to comfort, and McFarland from another planet to a place he is eager to call home. Apart from Maria Bello as Jim’s wife Cheryl, the cast is relatively unknown and of little note. They’re not given much to work with. The screenplay is simply too tightly wound, not fleshed out as it needs to be. With a total of four writers credited, one would think that the best possible story might have resulted, but we are left with a bland movie about bland people running blandly.
The movie’s greatest failure is its neglect of a certain character: McFarland. As the team bus drives to the championship meet, I felt outside rather than in, an observer rather than part of a community. A major point of contention throughout is that Jim White doesn’t belong, that he will never understand the plight of his runners. They work in the field before school and after; they wake up at 4:30 every morning, riding out of the city in the bed of a pickup truck. The final scene shows the real life coach riding his bike with his real life runners, everyone older and larger. He’s reached a point of companionship with these men. Such moments depicted by the actors never feel genuine; we are shown little of his interaction of the town outside of a few supporting characters.
This movie falls flat as anything more than an exercise in passing the time. In terms of quality, it’s fine. It is shot well and the actors give it their all. But nothing elevates it above adequacy. “Kingsmen: The Secret Service,” a film brimming with passion and frivolity and fun, is in theaters. See it over “McFarland U.S.A.,” a movie that is DOA, dead on the way to the theater and decaying as it is projected onto the screen.
Review by Lucas Dispoto