SPORTS FILM REVIEW – “McFarland USA”

My Dad recommended “McFarland USA” to me last year sometime.  Since he rarely sends a film endorsement my way unless he really likes it, I made a mental note.

But, always busy with other things to do, I put it off.

I’m sorry I did, because I really enjoyed this movie.

Beyond being well-crafted and inspiring, it has tremendous heart.

That is the crux of the movie, though:  Heart.

The film creates an example of how people born of difficult circumstances and who endure daily hardships can make it through life if they still have heart.

It demonstrates how people of unfamiliar cultures can come together, if they let their hearts open up.

And, it shows us how unprosperous athletes who may be ranked lower in social status can still push to the top, if they tap into their heart.

The Story

The film is set in 1987 and inspired by a true story.  It stars Kevin Costner as Jim White, a Caucasian high school football coach who keeps getting fired from a string of jobs around the country for losing his cool with impudent players he describes as “soft”.

Out of desperation, he takes a low-paying job at an underfunded high school in McFarland, one of central California’s smallest and poorest agricultural towns inhabited mostly by Mexican-Americans.

Upon arrival to McFarland with his Caucasian wife and two daughters (a tween & teenager), they are immediately hit with culture shock.  The community is impoverished and their new home is below the standard of living they were used to in previous white-bred society.  A prison also lurks in the background, one in which many of the residents eventually end up in.

When they head out to dinner that first night, they find the one restaurant in town is Mexican-American and it only serves tacos, quesadillas, and burritos.  White asks the waitress, “Do you have burgers?”

When they leave the restaurant, the Whites are almost assailed by a group of young local Latinos who pull up in their flashy hot rods and whistle at White’s wife & daughters.  He hurries them out of the parking lot and speeds away.

After a sleepless night, White tells his wife they are packing up and leaving the next day.  She convinces him that they should give it a chance since after all, it’s the only place they have to go.  White reluctantly agrees.

That day his youngest daughter doesn’t want to go to McFarland’s school.  She tells everyone how scared she is and is practically dragged out of the car.  Presumably, she vocalizes the fear that White has bottled up inside for his 1st day as a McFarland high school PE teacher and assistant football coach.

White’s student athletes at first seem insolent and don’t take him seriously.  They make fun of him and refer to him in the Spanish translation of his surname – “Blanco”.

He goes through the motions for a while unfulfilled.  He also remains concerned about his family’s situation in McFarland as fish out of water.

Things start to change when White notices his student (Thomas Valles) running through the fields one day on his way to school.  He follows the kid daily and even brings a stopwatch to clock the runner’s quick pace: almost 15 mph.

White realizes that many of the kids in McFarland are similarly fast.

Each child in town works “the fields” from dawn until breakfast with their parents, then the kids run miles to school while their parents remain, only to run back to the fields after school and work until dusk.  (All done in the scorching heat of central California.)

This sparks an idea for White.  If he can put together a winning cross country team at McFarland, it may be his ticket out of there to a better job/place.

White runs up against skepticism at the school and has a hard time convincing them to let him start the team.  They don’t think the kids can compete on a state level with the wealthier high schools.

Eventually, White does get the approval and begins by recruiting one of the friendlier students to enlist others for a team insisting that Thomas be one of them.

The kids are reluctant to join because “Nobody wins around here.”  Like the high school officials, it seems like everyone at McFarland has accepted their fate as people who will never really achieve anything worthwhile.

But, White doesn’t give up and ultimately, a team is put together including Thomas and his brother (Danny), an overweight kid that is always lagging way behind.

White lets Danny stay on the team, however, as he realizes this will be the way he keeps Thomas around.  White also realizes that Danny may be fat, but he doesn’t give up.

Some weeks later, White and his students compete at their first race with neighboring high schools (the Palo Alto Invitational).

The other coaches at the meet are dubious and taunt White and his amateurish looking kids who stand nervously next to the confident white kids.  One white student even quips at Thomas that he doubts they can run “without a cop behind them”.

The race is disastrous, as McFarland comes in last due to lack of conditioning on large hills.  White is despondent, along with the kids who are trash-talked by the other kids.

The next day, White takes his student to an area containing large mounds of almond hulls covered with tarp and instructs them to run up and down them for conditioning.

The kids want to quit, but White keeps trying to motivate them.  They resist him and tell him “It’s never going to change… We are just pickers”.

The team manages to stick together and White decides to ride his daughter’s bicycle next to the kids through the fields while training.  This helps them to prepare for their 2nd race and eventual first win (McFarland vs Clovis HS).

The kids are thrilled, but one day Thomas quits the team.  His father, a picker, just returned from months away and doesn’t want his son to waste his time running when he needs to work for the family.

Knowing he can’t win without Thomas, White goes to Thomas’ house and is invited to eat with the large family.  The next morning, White goes on a morning pick with the family and almost keels over in the afternoon from the strain.  He admits later that it was “the hardest thing he’s ever done”.  He can’t believe the kids/parents have to endure such hard manual labor for so long in the fields.

The town slowly starts to become impressed with White’s effect on the kids and all the effort he is putting in to get to know them.  White is also waking to the warmth of the families who are very welcoming to him and his family.  Even his daughters are enjoying their time there and making new friends.

One moment in particular that strikes a chord with White is when he is shown a poem one of his student runners write:

“We fly like black birds through the orange groves, floating on a warm wind.  When we run, we own the earth.  The land is ours.  We speak the birds’ language.  Not immigrants no more.  Not stupid Mexicans.  When we run, our spirits fly.  We speak to the Gods.  When we run, we are the Gods.”

Still, White has it in his mind to look for better opportunities when offered to him.  He doesn’t realize that his experience in McFarland and with these kids are affecting him, including his teaching style.

For example, instead of “kicking [his students] butts”, like he used to, he speaks to the McFarland kids’ hearts to motivate them.  He tells them the odds may be stacked against them at the State Championship Qualifying event coming up, but they must “believe in yourselves, maybe more importantly, find a way to believe in one another” for success at the big state event.

One of the students says “Don’t you mean ‘If’ [we qualify]?”  White replies, “No, I mean when”.  Another of the students call him “Coach” for the first time, instead of “Blanco”.

At this time, White introduces the notion of his students getting a college degree after high school which would help get their parents out of the fields.  The kids are still unconvinced, but carry through with White’s guidance.

For the State Championship Qualifier, the town starts to rally around the students.  People hold up signs on the main street and kids chase after the school bus when they pass by on their way to the race.

At the Qualifier, White is approached with an offer to teach at Palo Alto High School, a predominantly Caucasian neighboring school.  They admit they are impressed with his success at McFarland.

Meanwhile, White’s team does well enough to qualify for the State Championship.  They are all thrilled, including the town which is energized by their children’s success.

Back at home, word gets out about White’s offer to teach at Palo Alto.  The students, for one, are nervous about him leaving and upset.

White admits he is lured by the idea.  “It’s everything we’ve always wanted”, he tells his wife.  “State of the art facility, safer neighborhood, bigger house, better pay”.

But, White’s wife cautions him about the job opportunity.  She reveals to him “Nowhere I’ve ever lived has ever felt this much like home”.

At the State Championship, the students arrive with White and are so nervous, Danny throws up as soon as he gets off the bus.  Sensing their fear, White gives the kids a galvanizing appeal, “You guys are super human.  What you endure just to be here, to get a shot at this…  It’s the kind of privilege someone like me takes for granted.  There’s nothing you can’t do with that kind of strength, with that kind of heart… You kids have the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen”.

In White’s eyes, at that moment, is the look of real respect for these student athletes.  He is humbled by their effort and no matter what happens after this point, he lets them know how much esteem he has for them.

Finally, when the race starts, one of McFarland’s strongest runners goes too fast and runs out of gas, dropping way behind.  The other teammates recognize what is happening and White yells to them that they will have to “make up for it” in order to pick up his points.  They all race with verve and leave nothing behind.  Even chubby Danny who is usually at the back of the pack dashes past everyone and finishes well.

In the end, McFarland wins the State Championship.  The townspeople who came to the meet to support the kids go crazy, Danny is lofted upon the shoulders of his peers and even other coaches congratulate White.

White sees the Palo Alto officials and walks over to the them.  He shakes their hands and comes back to the McFarland crowd, awaiting with baited breath if he’s made a decision about whether he’ll leave or stay.  White simply tells his wife, “McFarland”.  They all embrace.

We are left with a vista at the front of McFarland high school and 9 pennants hanging across the building.  The caption tells us that White took 9 McFarland teams to victory at the State Championship in 14 years.

Then the real Jim White rides his bicycle with the real kids (now adults) running alongside him and the newest student recruits.  All of White’s 1987 students went to college and have become successful people.  Before Jim White came along, “No one on the 1987 team had a single relative that completed 9th grade.”

Jim White retired in 2003 and he still lives in McFarland to this day.

My Review

This film inspired the sports lover inside of me and also, touched my heart.

As a sports lover, I was drawn to how Coach White learned the best way to motivate his players was through their minds and hearts, rather than simply yelling in frustration at students to do what he said.

Albeit, he admitted that the Caucasian kids he previously taught were “soft”, and so used to “privilege” that they took it for granted. But, heart is there in every athlete.  The trick is to find it.

Perhaps the McFarland kids had a straighter line of motivation from resistance to the heart because they didn’t have a spoiled mind standing in their way like the other kids White had experienced teaching.

Ultimately, this theme is why I am so fascinated with sports and athletes.  I always wonder what pushes a person to do better with less.  How do Coaches help an individual to see their potential and at the same time, bring a whole team of individuals together and achieve? Why do others fail in this mission?

Beyond sports, “McFarland USA” provides a lesson of how people from different cultures can come together and not only live peacefully, but do it with real affection.  This is especially apropos with all that is going on in America today.

We can learn a lot on many different levels from this film.  And, I urge people to see it if they haven’t.  It’s certainly worth the effort to find, which is not easy.  I could only locate it on DVD through Netflix.

Grade: A

A Disney production; Recommended for families & children.

 



Source : Official McFarland USA Website

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