Title: McFarland, USA

Director: Niki Caro (‘Whale Rider,’ ‘North Country’)

Starring: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts and Morgan Saylor

Parents can often endure heartbreaking economic, social and emotional struggles in their determined attempts to provide a better and more fulfilling life for their children. While they take whatever means necessary to take care of their children, parents at times may not realize that the next generation wishes to achieve its own goals. But their eventual powerful understanding that their children have to follow their own path to attain their dreams is grippingly emphasized in director Niki Caro’s new sports drama, ‘McFarland, USA,’ which is set to open in theaters nationwide on Friday. The film, which is based on the incredible true story of high school cross-country coach, Jim White, who embraced his students’ determination to stay connected to their migrant agricultural community, while also fulfilling their goals of obtaining an education, so that they can better provide for their families.

‘McFarland, USA’ begins in the fall of 1987, when Jim (Kevin Costner) is fired from his football coaching position at an elite high school in Boise, Idaho, after he harshly verbally disciplines his players for their severe inability to score during a game. After he throws a shoe at the team’s entitled quarterback, which accidentally hits him in the face, Jim is forced to accept any job he’s offered in order to survive. His only option is to accept a lowly job of teaching life science and P.E. in the film’s title central Californian town, which is the poorest in the state. His family, including his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters, high school student Julie (Morgan Saylor) and middle school-aged Jamie (Elsie Fisher), begrudgingly move yet again, so that Jim can have another chance of continuing his career.

The Whites immediately become uncomfortable in the small agricultural community, whose predominantly Mexican-American population is poor and only real chance of survival is working the crops in the fields. The town initially views Jim and his family with amusement over their inability to instantly assimilate, as well as resentment over what they perceive to be an entitled white man who doesn’t understand their struggles. But the racial differences and misunderstandings between the coach and his students and their families soon changes when Jim realizes how naturally fast and athletic his students are in one of his classes. So despite the reluctance of Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez), Jim decides to start the first cross-country team at McFarland High School.

After finally receiving permission to start the team from the hesitant principal, Jim recruits seven boys to run for the team. He continuously pursues the most naturally gifted runner in the school, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), who’s initially doubtful about joining, in part because of his family’s struggles at home. But he eventually agrees to serve as the team captain, partially because of his blossoming friendship with Julie. While some of the parents are also weary of the cross-country team, as it will take their sons away from helping make money in the fields, Jim is also able to sign on the Diaz brothers, including Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), David (Rafael Martinez) and Damacio (Michael Aguero). The team is rounded out by Jose Cardenas (Johnny Ortiz), Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran) and Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar), who help prove that they are able to overcome the state’s more experienced, and better-funded, all-white teams, as long as they have the support of Jim and those truly believe in them.

Caro, who grippingly showcased her commanding directorial instincts in the empowering 2005 Oscar-nominated drama, ‘North Country,’ once again enthrallingly highlighted and captured the emotional and societal challenges the strong and determined protagonist set out to overcome. Not only was the helmer passionate about showing Jim’s initial struggle to connect with, and understand, the motivations of his students, so that he could help improve their lives, she also intriguingly showcased how the coach’s own resolve to offer a better environment for his wife and their two daughters was the one element that truly separated them. As the coach relentlessly set out to have Thomas and his teammates appreciate the values of teamwork, persistence and most importantly, achieving their goals and dreams, he unknowingly emotionally distanced himself from his own loved ones, who he swore to always protect.

Costner also naturally infused the sports drama’s charismatic and compelling protagonist with an organic sense of pride, strength and generosity. Jim initially balked at the idea of truly settling down in McFarland, and only viewed it as a stepping stone to a coaching position in a more prestigious district like Palo Alto. However, the Academy Award-winning actor slowly but surely integrated a naturally progressing vulnerability and appreciation of friends and family into a character who was struggling with his conflicting feelings about how to best mentor people who don’t always appreciate his ideas.

Utilizing the creative freedom Caro offered him on the set, Costner believably showcased the influential difference even one person like Jim can make on a community, especially impressionable teens like Thomas and his teammates. The runners are initially hesitant to join the cross-country team, as they feel their new potential coach doesn’t understand their emotional turmoil and grim reality that defines the lives of migrant workers. But Pratts and the other young performers endearingly used Jim’s growing faith in their characters’ natural athletic ability to realize that despite their lifestyle differences, he’s only trying to help him, both on and off the track.

‘McFarland, USA’ is an intensely inspiring and empowering biographical sports drama that thrives on the humanity that Jim found while learning to coach teens who were desperate to move past social and emotional barriers that were placed on their working class families. Caro also rivetingly showcased the students’ determination and dedication to not only their families, but also Jim, each other and most importantly, themselves, as they thrived on their coach’s encouragement to move past their current disadvantaged circumstances with grace. The captivating drama not only proved that people should celebrate each other’s hard work, talents and determination, but also honors cultures who contribute valuable assets to society, but are rarely respected for their efforts and achievements.

Technical: B

Acting: B+

Story: B

Overall: B

Written by: Karen Benardello

McFarland, USA Movie Review

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By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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