Disney’s “McFarland, USA” brings authentic story to SBIFF
February 19, 2015
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In front of a packed hall in the Arlington Theater on Feb. 8, Roger Durling, the Director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), opened in Spanish on the final night of the festival – talking about his experience pursuing the American Dream as a Panamanian immigrant in the United States. “This country is all about keeping your dreams no matter where you came from,” he said in English. “You work hard and you succeed.”
Durling’s words allude to similar themes in that night’s showing and the U.S. premiere of Disney’s “McFarland, USA,” an underdog sports movie about a high school cross country team and their coach as they pursue not just the state championship title, but also an ascension from the oppressive poverty of their town of McFarland, California.
It is an underdog sports movie directed by Niki Caro that follows Coach Jim White, played by Kevin Costner, and the 1987 McFarland High School’s cross country team as together they work hard on the road to compete in the state championship race. Based on actual events, the movie takes its viewers through the struggles of being part of a fieldworking Hispanic or Latino immigrant family. Poverty and the threat of an eternal life in the fields surround the team throughout the movie, but the themes of family and the embracing of cultures truly make “McFarland, USA” a heartwarming and surprisingly dramatic rendition of the heroic true story.
In the movie, White is a high school coach and teacher who is forced to take a teaching position at McFarland High School in order to support his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and his two daughters, older sister Julie (Morgan Saylor) and younger sister Jamie (Elsie Fisher). White is a family man faithful to his wife, daughters and students, and who consistently perseveres for his runners, but with the problem of fully integrating with the new community around him. From the tamales and sun-baked adobe houses to the people he meets, there is a heavy clash between cultures, one that feels heavy-handed as Disney tries to fit in as many laughs as it can about the Whites’ encounters with chickens and roosters to lighten the ones with gangbangers and despair.
The most intriguing and heroic characters of the movie are those of White’s seven Hispanic and Latino runners: Thomas Valles (Chris Pratts), Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez), Damacio Diaz (Michael Aguero), David Diaz (Rafael Martinez), Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran), Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar) and Jose Cardenas (Johnny Ortiz). In contrast to White’s almost-stoic appearance, his runners joke, laugh and play together while also confronting their hopes and despairs for a better life. Their interactions feel natural, as though each of them are brothers, but, unfortunately, the movie primarily fleshes out just one of these characters. Past the first half hour of the movie, many of their backstories are left unknown beyond their immigrant family profiles. Instead, each of them are assigned different stereotypical personalities: the funny one, the sarcastic one, the fat one and so on.
The same mistake occurs for the movie’s female characters as well. Other than to build context, White’s wife only serves as encouragement for the beleaguered coach and his daughters offer little to the movie besides adding a cuteness factor, slight teenage drama and a single, unimportant and predictable plot twist that barely affects the rest of the movie.
The plot twist is just one trope of the underdog sports movie subgenre that Disney follows. Like other similar movies, this film includes the reluctant coach who meets the reluctant team, the confluence of two different cultures and an eventual embracement of each other’s differences that culminates in an unexpected win for the characters in the movie. These characteristics are just a few that one may find in other underdog sports films that Disney had produced including “Remember the Titans” and even “Cool Runnings.”
Despite these negative points, however, moviegoers should still watch “McFarland, USA.” It is a beautifully-shot movie with sweeping vistas of Southern California hills, orchards and farmland. The acting is also well-done all around, especially that of Pratts, whose dramatic performance is surprisingly heavy and heartfelt, and lends a mature tone to the family-friendly movie.
Most importantly, “McFarland, USA” is a must-watch movie because it is an excellent portrayal of an inspirational true story with a subject not often found in mainstream, big budget movies. It skirts around issues such as poverty and whether the American Dream is still attainable while remaining entertaining to most audiences.
Viewers may also better appreciate the movie when they learn that many of the struggles the characters face in the film are transplanted well from reality. In the town of McFarland, the kids “still pick in the summer to help out their parents,” said Aguero, a native from McFarland who plays one of the Diaz brothers.
Learning about the three fledgling actors from McFarland, Aguero, Martinez and Rodriguez, and how they got from their town to acting in a Disney movie should be inspiring enough to convince people to watch their movie.
“I don’t have words, I mean it’s just something that you feel, and it’s just overwhelming,” said Martinez. “I don’t know how to really put it, but I’m very, very happy to be here.”
He dreams of becoming a musician “to reach out to people and show people they can do anything they want to,” Martinez said. “If you set your mind to something, don’t let somebody tell you you can’t.”
After its U.S. premiere at the SBIFF, “McFarland, USA” is set to open in theaters this Friday, Feb. 20.