I saw a movie recently that I want to recommend. It's not the best movie I've ever seen and some critics call it formulaic and predictable. Well, yes, but what do you expect from a sports story about a bunch of underdogs who turn out to be champions? It's a formula that has proven successful since long before Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" hit the screens and made box office history. And the fact that it's predictable? Well, it's hard not to predict much of what happens in the movie when the ending has been so publicized...and the fact that it's a movie based closely on true events.
"McFarland, USA" is set in 1987. It stars Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, and a bunch of lesser known actors. But it also contains some memorable performances by some people who are not actors, or at least weren't before the movie went into production and they were gleaned from the population of McFarland, California and the surrounding area.
Costner plays Jim White, a high school football coach who has had trouble hanging on to a job and is hired on as assistant football coach by McFarland High School despite his troubled past. McFarland can't really be picky because most teachers don't want to work there. The town is filled with Mexican-American "pickers" and their families. Their strong Latino heritage and low-income is off-putting to many more mainstream Americans, like Jim White, unless they are desperate, like Jim White.
Coach White soon finds that he is not a good fit with the football program and loses his assistant coach position. He notices that many of the students work hard picking fruits and vegetables with their families before and after school, and that they run...a lot. He comes up with the idea of forming a cross-country running team and, despite resistance from the school, the community, and the students and their families, forms a team and starts to whip them into shape. When they are ready to compete, they do, and lose. Eventually they overcome their difficulties and begin to win. At the end of the movie the McFarland Cougars compete in, and win, California's first ever state cross-country meet.
But the movie is a good one not just because of those tried-and-true elements. White (yes, there are a lot of jokes about the name) learns to relax and accept the culture, just as the residents of McFarland learn to accept him and his family. More than that, the athletes learn that they are not doomed to repeat the cycle of dropping out of school and working in the fields or going to the prison which is right across the street from the school. After the team wins the state championship, the closing minutes of the film catch the viewer up on what has happened since then. We learn that the school won the state cross-country championship nine times in the next 14 years, and qualified to compete at the state meet every year for the next 24. The film also shows the actors running down a dirt road with the real Jim White riding along on a bicycle. It shows the seven main actors and the name of the student athletes they played, then shows the real people and tells what they have done since 1987. We find that none of the seven had a family member go beyond the ninth grade before them, and they all attended college and went on to find fulfilling jobs, many returning to McFarland to help bring the community up. Only one served any time in prison and he is now out and back "on track" if you'll forgive the pun.
That's what I like most about the movie. Yes, I'm a sap for the feel-good, underdog-comes-out-on-top theme. Loved it. But what I really like is the fact that it shows that the American Dream is available to anybody who is willing to go out and work for it. Anybody.
If you get a chance, run out and watch "McFarland, USA". I'm willing to bet you'll like it too.