4 Stars — Inspiring
McFarland USA may be a small town in California’s Central Valley, but it is ground zero for the feel-good movie of 2015.
This is a story on many levels of people who live beneath their potential, but who learn from one another the power of love, family support and teamwork to bring to the surface the people they were meant to be. Brought to the screen by Disney Pictures, it is certain to be a hit with every high school in the country that dreams about being better than they are.
Based on the true story of Coach Jim White of McFarland High School (played by Kevin Costner), we are witness to the rise of the McFarland cross-country team, which went on to win the state championship in 1987, and then held that position for 25 straight years. White was the first to rise above his potential, but like most of us, he didn’t know he had it in him.
Having moved to McFarland as a last hope in his teaching career, he legitimately feels the sense of disappointment of his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and his two daughters, Julie and Jamie. His gruff teaching style has gotten him bounced from yet another job, and McFarland is the last stop on his downward-spiraling career.
Like many agricultural towns in the Southwest, McFarland is a place without a core that would be known to the outside world. Located in the rich farmland north of Bakersfield, the city’s website describes itself as “a place divided physically and culturally by Highway 99.” Most of those who work and live there are tied to the land, and the largest number of its people are farmworkers whose roots are less than a generation removed from Mexico and Central America. It is a very different world than where Coach White has raised his daughters and to whom he has to justify his new place of employment.
Coach White’s assessment and transformation of his athletes requires him to be the first to transform. His quest for success has slowly blinded him to the need for being the best father he can be. While he tries to win over the farmworker families from whom his athletes come, he ignores his own family and forgets his oldest daughter’s 15th birthday. In a poignant moment of growth, having been invited to have dinner with the farmworker family of two of his students, the family matriarch reminds him that even though her husband works 10 hours day in the hot sun, he is always home at night at the dinner table inquiring how his sons are doing and giving them love and encouragement.
White’s second moment of growth comes when he assesses his students’ strengths and observes that the school has them playing the sports of the school’s choice, not the sports of the students’ talents. He witnesses how many of the students run from home and early morning jobs in the fields to get to school, and realizes the need to stop being football players and become runners on the cross-country team. In a move that rankles the rest of the coaching staff, he places these young men into a new sport where they can succeed.
What happens next changes the history of these young men — and the town — forever. Not only did the school become legendary, but the community was transformed into a supportive family that took pride in everyone’s success. Ironically, the school’s unprecedented 24-year streak of attending the state championship meet ended while this film was in production after the small school was elevated to Division I to compete against schools with more than 2½ times its enrollment, a byproduct of their success, according to local news reports.
Despite this attention and their first loss, the true story of redemption is lived out in the lives of the players. All of the students from the 1987 track team came from families where most of the parents had not graduated high school. Now, almost all of these kids graduate college, and most of the original team are back in McFarland working as teachers, coaches or administrators, building a new generation of achievers.
While Coach White isn’t shown to be a man of faith, when his students won their first championship they all joined hands and fell to the ground to pray and give thanks. It is a fitting statement of the enduring values that permeated the families of these young men who dreamed that they could become more than they were and then, in one season, witnessed the power of answered prayer.
» The placing of students into the school’s agenda rather than their unique potential is a problem with “organized education.” How do you think we could change our educational system to call out the best in each person?
» Using athletics to get a college education is a wonderful gift for those who may have not been able to go. What other ways could we help students go to college who might not be encouraged to do so?
» To have the students return to their hometown to become the coaches, teachers and leaders reflects more than just an athletic program. What do you think brought these people back to their hometown?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.