Inspired by the 1987 true story, “McFarland, USA” follows coach Jim White, whose job-hopping leads him to a predominantly Latino high school where he struggles to find common ground until he notices his students’ exceptional running ability. He forms a fledgling team of unlikely runners who bond to build not only a championship cross-country team but an enduring legacy as well.
In reality, the school’s unprecedented 24-year streak of attending the State Championship meet came to an end while the film was in production after the small school was elevated to Division I, to compete against schools with more than 2.5 times their population (an unfortunate byproduct of their success).
“McFarland USA” is the perfect family movie! It is a remarkable film based on a true story and combines drama and humor to present a coach and his athletes as underdogs who work hard and learn to believe in themselves. The results are pretty spectacular.
Kevin Costner gives a strong performance as Jim White, a high school P.E. and football coach with a short fuse that lost him his last job. The story takes place in the fall of 1987 when White moves his family from Boise, Idaho, to McFarland, a central California town that is predominantly Mexican-American, poor but honest folk who pick in the fields all day to eke out a living. White’s new position, teaching science and physical education, is a step down. When the football coach he works with doesn’t like him defending a player, he loses the football coaching job, but not his teaching position. When White’s daughter points out that a few of the football players are fleet of foot, he gets the idea to start a cross country team. Other coaches think it is ludicrous and it takes White a while to get his own runners on board, but once he does—and when he lands the very fast Thomas Valquez (Carlos Pratts)—things begin to gel.
The movie features some laugh-out-loud moments, including a scene in which White thinks one of his runners’ fathers can’t speak English. He tries to speak Spanish to him to thank him for a meal when the dad replies to his son, “Tell him he’s welcome!” It’s funny too when White attempts to pronounce the athletes’ names and pretty much murders each pronunciation.
The underdog element is exemplified in a character named Danny, an overweight runner who is determined to anchor the team. He improves dramatically and by the time the McFarland Cougars qualify for the state championship, Danny is one of the nicest surprises of the final competition.
Just as the team is headed for the big competition, Coach White is offered a nice position at competitor Palo Alto. Will he opt to stay at McFarland or move on to a more comfortable position? The end of the movie does a nice job explaining how well the cross country team did from that first year onward, and that all seven of the team’s runners went on to college. This is an inspiring must-see film. We are pleased to award “McFarland USA” our Dove “Family-Approved” Seal for ages twelve plus. This movie has earned five Doves, our best rating.