I don’t know about you, but this hard February has left me plenty surly. Cold, snow, worse cold, more snow, wind-chills that defy credulity and snow banks around the driveway that are challenge shoveling shoulders.
So here comes Disney’s McFarland, USA, the true story of a high school coach who moves from Boise, Idaho, to California after getting bounced from yet another job, disappointed wife and two daughters in tow.
My dear wife Karen and I drove to a late Saturday matinee as the snow fell. We’d seen the trailers featuring Kevin Costner as coach Jim White, and the scenes directed by Niki Caro and written by Christopher Cleveland looked interesting, beautifully shot and warm. Quite warm. It worked. A half-filled theater settled in to watch a movie ostensibly about cross-country runners.
And it was good. Costner fits comfortably in films about sports, certainly, he of baseball films Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, and For Love of the Game, golf’s Tin Cup, and even last year’s Draft Day, when he played an NFL general manager.
He also can do quite well as the gruff guy who listens well and has a big heart, and that’s the shoe that fits this one.
We meet Jim White during the incident that caused him to flee Boise and continue with he and his family as he takes the only job offered, as a teacher and assistant football coach at the high school in McFarland, a small town where most of the students are Mexican, children of proud parents who make a living by working the flat, dusty fields of surrounding farms. His wife, played by a reserved Maria Bello, and daughters, a high schooler well done by Morgan Saylor and an elementary schooler, take his cue and proceed with caution and a certain dismay as they settle into a small house and observe ways they don’t quite understand.
And then the head football coach turns out to be a tool, and that slot goes poof. But the principal turns out to be one of the good townspeople, and more and more of those start turning up. Soon White notices a lot of these high school boys in his PE class can run really fast, then he sees them running around town, too. He talks the principal into starting a cross-country team.
What happens from there is fairly predictable, yes, but what played out in White’s real life and the acting by the young men who portray his runners, particularly Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles, keep these 2 hours, 8 minutes from falling into a stereotype. Good things and bad things occur in McFarland, USA, and it becomes easy to care about the members of the families that fill it.
When several of the big moments are resolved, the crowd in the theater clapped.
And before the credits rolled, clips included explanations of what the characters — no, the real people — went on to do with their lives after the final scene. That earned more applause at the end, before people had to go back to the reality of this February in Syracuse.
Mark Bialczak is a veteran journalist who has lived in the Syracuse area since 1983. In early 2013, he was set free to write about whatever he wants. Click here to read Mark’s BLOG.