“Real stories and real people. Go to the real community. Ask for their collaboration. Keep my eyes and my ears open and my mouth shut.” That was filmmaker Niki Caro’s statement as to how she works best as applied to her latest effort, McFARLAND, USA, which opens in theaters everywhere this weekend. After being in-development through several companies over the years, the WHALE RIDER director took the reigns after it had landed at Disney some years back, facing down the daunting task of bringing to life the true story of one of California’s greatest sports dynasties – one layered with cultural and economic intricacies. After numerous writers tried their hand at reworking the script, McFARLAND, USA finally took shape from a screenplay by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, with Kevin Costner (whom I interviewed here) returning to the sports film genre to inhabit the role of Jim White (interviewed here) – the coach that led a team of novice runners to a cross-country championship in 1987, laying the groundwork for more to come in the decades that have followed.
While the film openly takes some creative liberties in dramatizing the story and condensing several years-worth of real-life events into an on-screen year that fits within it’s 2-hour runtime, McFARLAND, USA is one of those movies that makes the time fly by – not once feeling bloated or slow-paced despite the vast ground to cover. It’s a visually beautiful film (much of it cast in a golden hue from sunrise and sundown), with a fantastic score by ANTONIO PINTO that’s accented by an original song by JUANES and classics from WAR and PARLIAMENT. All of this wraps some star-making performances by much of the young cast.
Here we find Costner as a flawed man – a teacher/coach who’s done what many have had to do, taking the best (perhaps “only”) job available to him, relocating his wife and daughters into a new place… the town of McFarland, California – a notoriously-poor farming community that is home to many “pickers,” Mexican families who work the fields, harvesting the foods that so many eat on a daily basis. The town is in most respects “a dump,” and the Whites nearly head for Bakersfield, which Jim’s wife Cheryl (played by Maria Bello) is quick to shoot down as being completely unaffordable. What ends up leading the redemption of Jim White is all tied to a glimpse at Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) ripping across a field like a young Clark Kent racing a train (yes, I made a Superman nod since Costner played Supes’ Dad in MAN OF STEEL). The speed of the youngster sets off a bell that McFarland High School could do big things with a Cross Country team – something usually reserved for the more upscale “white” schools. His journey to making such a team a reality bonds him with the local families as his family is welcomed and embraced – all learning from one another.
“We’ve made a profoundly American film. And that’s amazing to me. It really is. And it so happens that 99% of the people in the movie are Mexican American. But it is — it’s an American film,” added Caro when I spoke with her about McFARLAND earlier this month in Los Angeles.
Having viewed McFARLAND, USA with a diverse audience and since seeing the social media support around it, the film unites through it’s message of family and community. It’s not about “running,” but rather a group of individuals that come together to inspire others… not just once, but again and again.
Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios’ McFARLAND, USA stars Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Martha Higareda, Michael Aguero, Sergio Avelar, Hector Duran, Rafael Martinez, Johnny Ortiz, Carlos Pratts, Ramiro Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Valente Rodriguez, Vanessa Martinez, Chris Ellis and Diana Maria Riva. Directed by Niki Caro with screenplay by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, and story by Cleveland & Gilois, Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi produced, with Mario Iscovich and Mary Martin serving as executive producers. McFARLAND, USA is in theaters now. Get tickets via Fandango.