His name is Jim White. He’s a coach. But that last name is all the students — his prospective athletes — need to know at McFarland High School.
“White. That an acceptable name where you come from, Holmes?”
Why sign up for his cross country team? Why even try?
“Nobody wins around here, ‘White.’ ”
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McFarland is in the heart of California farm country, a town of “pickers,” Hispanic descendants of migrant workers who have settled there, many of them still picking and barely getting by. The kids have a fatalism about their future that seems at odds with their stamina and stoicism. That’s what Coach White (Kevin Costner) picks up on. If only he can get them to stop calling him “White” or “Blanco” or “Jefe.”
As in, “I’m not running, Jefe.”
“McFarland, USA” is an earnest feel-good sports dramedy, a simple culture clash story that is well-intentioned to a fault. The fact that it works can be laid at the feet of Kevin Costner, who plays another unfussy, flawed and totally real white guy who makes a journey past stereotypes to understand another people, another culture.
Flawed? We’ve already seen the stone-faced White throw cleats at an unruly football player in Idaho. There’s a temper there, one that’s gotten him fired before. As in “Hoosiers” and other coach stories, White needs redemption.
That’s not what he thinks he’s found at McFarland. The town is so Hispanic and poor that he worries about his daughters, frets about how soon he can get out. It’s 1987, but his principal knows his past. It doesn’t take much to get him demoted from the football team staff.
But White hears that cross country is an up-and-coming sport in California. And he can’t help but notice the endurance of his stoop-shouldered students. If they can survive the hard fieldwork that they do with their parents, they surely can run over hill and dale with the prep school kids who will be their main rivals.
Thomas (Carlos Pratts) makes the strongest impression among the kids, short and scowling — a no-nonsense boy who is the key recruit to this team. Niki Caro’s film spends the most time with his back story and his family struggles. But every family needs their boys working, not running.
The predictability of this “true story” works against it, as we see the over-familiar “big game” story arc play out — disrespect and losing, to “turning it around,” making it to the state championship. There’s melodramatic gang violence, mistrustful parents and fellow teachers, and desperate kids who see running as their way out.
The prejudice mostly comes from the opposing coaches and runners. “I hear they can’t run without a cop behind ’em or a Taco Bell in front of them!”
Costner makes it all work. Caro (“Whale Rider”) has us see this world through his character’s eyes, and Costner makes White’s story arc — from pre-judging this place and its people, to understanding both — compelling. He conveys a kind of decency that seems sanitized and idealized, until you notice that at every point, kind and whimsical Hispanic townspeople surprise the Whites (Maria Bello is the Mrs.) and broaden their “white” horizons.
“McFarland” is old-fashioned without being dull, pandering without feeling cloying or racist. As with “Black or White,” in which Costner plays a narrow-minded man who has his eyes opened when he sees past racist stereotypes, Costner plays a person whose ignorance of other people and other cultures is his greatest sin. He does not make these guys caricatures. Caricatures cannot change. Real people, Costner’s performances suggest, can.