The backstory happens to be bunk if you know the real story, but it effectively dramatizes White’s motivation to transition McFarland’s frankly terrible football players into underdog track competitors. Director Niki Caro takes us down a very well-worn path that constantly threatens to topple into “inspirational teaher/coach” cliché, but manages to mostly sidestep that fate with its plainspoken, unflashy appeal. White and his family, which includes wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and kids Julie (Morgan Saylor) & Jamie (Elsie Fisher), immediately feel like fish out of water as the rare Caucasian presence in McFarland. Their prejudices bubble to the surface at times, like when a local car club shows up outside an eatery and the Whites assume they’re a bunch of gangbangers.
Initially White’s only motivation is to repair his tarnished reputation and get the heck out of McFarland ASAP, but the more he connects with his beleaguered team members, the more he feels a sense of purpose. These kids can’t play football, but they’re excellent runners. Racism rears its ugly head from time to time as White first starts entering his students in cross country tournaments, with slurs being hurled by school professionals as well as rival students. But as White learns more about the hardscrabble life most of his students lead, where picking fruit and veggies is just about the only occupation in their futures, his drive to inspire is ignited.
The young actors playing the cross-country team members (Carlos Pratts as Thomas, Johnny Ortiz as Jose, Hector Duran as Johnny, Sergio Avelar as Victor, and Michael Ageuro, Rafael Martinez, & Ramiro Rodriguez as the Diaz brothers - Damacio, David, and Danny) each have their moments, but therein lies McFarland, USA biggest problem. The fudging of real-life facts regarding Jim White’s story for dramatic purposes is understandable and acceptable, but making the Hispanic stars take a backseat to the White family isn’t. We don’t learn enough about these kids, the realities of their lives, and what the possibility of a state championship truly means to them. Instead we’re given tangents about the White family, such as Julie’s depression when Jim forgets her 15th birthday. It makes sense that Coach White is a central figure and Costner is undeniably appealing in the role. But the movie could’ve benefited from a POV shift, allowing us to see more clearly through the eyes of students.
Disney’s gives us a terrific A/V presentation with the McFarland, USA Blu-ray. Emmy-award winning cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (HBO’s True Detective) shot the movie using 35mm film, probably to help evoke the period look (mid-‘80s). The sun-drenched California locations look great in this 1080p transfer. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is sturdy too, with great LFE response during music-dominated sequences. Antonio Pinto scored the film, which is peppered with thumping, bass-heavy tunes like Mongo Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man” and Parliament’s “Flash Light.”
There isn’t much here in terms of special features, but “McFarland Reflections” is a decent ten-minute featurette that introduces us to the real Jim White and some of his former students who are portrayed in the film. There are also a few deleted scenes, a music video for Juanes’ “Juntos (Together),” and a very short EPK featurette “Inspiring McFarland.” The Blu-ray package also includes a downloadable Digital HD copy.
McFarland, USA pushes the right buttons, even if we can easily predict where the story is heading. There are literally no surprises here, but the film’s hangdog charm is likeable and it’s perfect for family viewing. Younger viewers who perhaps have less experience with “inspirational teacher” films are likely to enjoy it all the more. Just be forewarned that we don’t learn as much as we should about the students themselves. While it’s factually correct that a white educator coached these kids to greatness, that doesn’t mean McFarland, USA needed to be told from his perspective.