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McFarland, USA

February 20, 2015
McFarland, USA

Another month, another swipe Kevin Costner takes at playing the Great White Savior. Thankfully, McFarland, USA isn’t nearly as tone-deaf as Black or White, but it’s not exactly great either. Instead, it’s nice — incessantly, relentlessly nice.

Costner plays Jim White. The name is so on-the-nose — and everyone in the movie remarks on it — that it’s only excusable because the real person behind him really was named Jim White. He bounces out of a school in Idaho after a locker-room altercation with one of his football players, and it’s evidently not the first time. With few other options, Jim, his wife (Maria Bello), and his daughters (Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher) all move to the town of McFarland, in the San Joaquin valley of California. Most of the white teachers commute in from Bakersfield, but that’s not an option for the Whites, and they end up living among the majority of Mexican immigrant produce pickers in town.

Jim quickly establishes himself as a Nice Guy when he keeps one of the football players from returning to the field after a particularly nasty hit, against the orders of the head coach. Dismissed from his post as assistant football coach, he notices that, while hardly brawlers on the gridiron, the local kids can run forever. He starts up a cross country team — until then the sort of thing only prep schools had — and recruits seven runners.

The team are somewhat interchangeable. Victor (Sergio Avelar) is a budding juvenile delinquent with an older brother just back from the prison next door to the school. Thomas (Carlos Pratts) has a chip on his shoulder; his home life is tough, partly because his father travels far and wide for picking jobs, unlike the team-foreman father of the Diaz boys, Damacio (Michael Aguero), David (Rafael Martinez), and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez). Danny, incidentally, is the chubby kid on the team, who you just know is going to come through in the end. There are also Johnny (Hector Duran) and José (Johnny Ortiz); I assume they have stories of their own, not that we see much of them.

Once the team comes together there’s not really that much of an arc to speak of. There’s no real opposition to their progress, and to the Whites’ steady integration into the community. Sure, there are setbacks and momentary obstacles — Jim doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be a picker; there’s a scary situation the evening of his daughter’s quinceañera; he gets a generous offer from a private school — but each one resolves itself within two or three scenes. In a way, it’s a metaphor for cross country running itself: there’s no single opposing team trying to impede your progress, just bumps in the trail that you get over or around and keep on running.

But still, the overall story is that Jim White lands among a bunch of brown people and makes everything better. Kids who only ever longed to escape now return to McFarland to contribute the way their coach did. The success of the team gives the people something to believe in and cheer for. And — no real spoiler here — Jim magnanimously decides to stay, having Learned a Valuable Lesson about community from these Simple Hardworking People.

And so, nice as it is, McFarland, USA just can’t resonate as well as last month’s Spare Parts, despite covering similar ground. It will certainly do better business than that film, though; maybe we’re just not ready for stories about good things happening to brown people that aren’t ultimately gifts from a really nice white guy.

Worth It: probably not.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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