The Feel Good Movie of the Year: McFarland, USA
I got a chance to see McFarland, USA at a screening this week and left the theater as equally exhausted and exhilarated as I normally feel after running a race. The film is based on the compelling 1987 true story of a group of novice runners from McFarland, a farming town in California’s Central Valley, and how under the guidance of a down-on-his-luck coach, Jim White (Kevin Costner), a newcomer to their predominantly Latino high school, they overcome the odds to build a championship winning cross-country team and an enduring legacy.
I loved the movie and here are the 9 Reasons why I say GO see McFarland, USA which opened in theaters on February 20, 2015. Get your family, your friends, and your running club together, GO out for a great meal at your favorite local Mexican restaurant and GO see this movie. I guarantee a great evening out!
1. GO for the Joy!
Disney Pictures is calling McFarland, USA “the feel-good movie of 2015” and based on the constant cheering in the theater, and my unavoidable sappy tears, I say they are correct. You just couldn’t help but clap or let out an enthusiastic “yeah!” every time the McFarland boys gunned it for the finish line, especially when Danny Diaz (newcomer Ramiro Rodriguez), the slowest runner on the team, passed the other runners. I could not hold back the tears in the final scenes of the movie seeing what had become of the real-life characters. I didn’t feel manipulated with gratuitous scenes intended just to pull at the heart-strings. That impulse to cheer with abandon – that joy that makes you feel good – is the main reason to go see McFarland, USA.
2. GO for Kevin Costner’s Best Genre!
Kevin Costner is back to the big screen in his strongest genre, sports-themed inspirational dramas. He has done plenty of them – Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, Draft Day – however McFarland, USA shows the most heart. Costner, in his understated brooding kind of way, portrays a flawed man that makes plenty of mistakes yet you still root for him. He doesn’t get in the way of shining a light on the true stars of the movie, the 7 students on his cross-country band of misfits.
3. GO for The Students!
I was so touched to learn three out of the seven young actors portraying the McFarland runners were actually from the McFarland area and are first time actors. Michael Aguero from nearby Bakersfield, cast as Damacio Diaz, is a runner. Ramiro Rodriguez who plays Danny Diaz, the lovable “anchor” of the team, actually had the real life Danny Diaz as his high school counselor at McFarland High School, helped the school win their first soccer championship, and worked in the fields as the McFarland students. Read more about him in this story by ThatsItMommy.com. Sergio Avelar, who plays Victor Puentes, is part of the McFarland track team and had the real life Thomas Valles (the lead runner of the team) as his middle school coach. He almost didn’t audition assuming the director was looking for experienced actors, echoing the self-doubt and assumptions the students make in the film which make them skeptical of even trying Jim White’s crazy idea of a cross-country team, a sport assumed to be only for privileged schools. The casting of the movie is outstanding. They truly are the heart of McFarland, USA.
4. GO for The Community!
Running is technically a solo sport. Only you and your legs can get you to the finish line, yet you can’t do it alone. The running community is a powerful one. There is no greater feeling than having complete strangers cheer you on when you’re on the verge of hitting the dreaded wall, or in doing the same for others. When it comes to a cross-country team, it’s the combined score that counts so no matter how fast you are if the rest of the team doesn’t keep up, you will not win. That seems the case for any team, in sports and in life. One person can’t do it alone. McFarland, USA highlights this throughout the film. It shows the contrast of a selfish jock in the opening sequence to the group of boys that are committed to each other, both on and off the track. It shows the impact of family relationships and the support of the community. In a small town where nothing big ever happens, this power of community is most evident when the town’s main store closes for the first time in 25 years so everyone in town can go cheer the team on to victory. In big cities it’s easy to miss out on community relationships so it’s important to create them in any way we can. Whether it be your church, your school, your neighborhood or your running club, it’s important to have a group of people cheering you on. McFarland, USA reminds us of that.
5. GO for the Blend of Cultures!
Coach White and the McFarland students have a lot to learn about each other and it’s only when they start putting their prejudices and stereotypical first impressions aside that things truly change for all of them. The contrast of the poor Latino outsiders with the affluent Caucasian runners at every competition was quite obvious. The clash between Jim White, whose name could not be a more perfect metaphor, and the McFarland community of predominantly Mexican immigrants is unavoidable. At first, the White’s make all the usual first impression assumptions as they arrive in McFarland to see all street signs in this impoverished town are in Spanish. “Are we in Mexico?” one of White’s daughters asks. Throughout the movie we see how assumptions about others based on culture can be wrong and how accepting our differences can lead to a true sense of belonging. This is a Disney feel-good movie, so we don’t delve into the more gritty topics of race and socio-economic issues other than to say “don’t judge a book by its cover”. One of the songs used in the soundtrack sings in the chorus “We are all Americans” as the town people wave both their Mexican and US flags. The song “Juntos” by Latin superstar Juanes, celebrates how we can do anything together. The merging and melding of different cultures is what this country is all about. McFarland, USA is Anytown, USA.
6. GO for the Attitude!
Ask any runner and they will tell you, to succeed you need the right attitude, persistence, dedication, focus and heart. Running is a mind game as much as a physical test. You can train so your legs can get you there but will your mind defeat you? Will you talk yourself out of it because of all the million excuses why you think you can’t do it? The same is also true in life. Attitude is everything. In the movie you see these teenagers and their parents allow their economic circumstances and the norm of “what they have always done” as crop-pickers hold them back from pursuing “bigger things, greater things”. Hopelessness sets in unless you see alternatives exist and this is where Coach White makes the biggest impact. He showed them another way to make life better for themselves and their families. The path is not easy but you need to persevere, work hard and stick to it if you want to succeed at anything – not just sports – but life. It’s a great message for the youth of today. Champions can come from anywhere. McFarland, USA shows a new kind of American dream.
McFarland, USA release coincides with the Run Disney Princess Half Marathon a special race for me as it was my first race, of any kind, five years ago.Watching the movie and how hard the boys trained brought back those memories. Four months prior to the race I could barely run for one minute without gasping for air. My knees killed me after only one mile and I foolishly signed up to run 13.1. I recall waking up at 4:30am, as the kids do in the movie, just so that I could get my runs in before work. They were doing it to go work in the fields before training and going to school! My only goal was to finish the race before the dreaded street sweepers came up from behind. When I finished with a time of 2:18, you would have thought I won an Olympic gold medal. I did something I never thought possible. Coach White shows the importance of having a good attitude and work ethic. He set small goals for them and increased them as they went along. Perseverance gets you to the finish line every time and finishing always makes you a winner.
7. GO for the Love of Food!
I have a sincere appreciation of food, and more importantly the sharing of food as the best way to build relationships. McFarland, USA depicts this throughout the film to drool-worthy effect. The White family’s first stop in McFarland is a local restaurant with a limited menu of Mexican dishes – Tacos, Tortas, Enchiladas, Burritos, and Quesadillas. Jim White instead asks for a burger. Typical example of what many tourists tend to do in a new town, go for the familiar. The restaurant worker welcomes them and explains the menu after seeing the puzzled look on their faces. Various scenes show the people of McFarland coming together to cook as a group but my favorite food scene is quite typical of any Latino household. Coach White shows up at the Diaz house with the only intention to convince the boys’ father to allow them to be on the team instead of working with him in the fields. He is immediately invited to the dinner table and seven helpings of the most delicious enchiladas and rice later, not only finds himself in a food coma but more importantly, humbled by the experience. The mother, played with such sass and strength by Diana Maria Riva, reminded me of every Hispanic mom I’ve ever met. Food is everything. What drives the people of McFarland to go out into the fields and pick the produce that we eat is simply so they can put food on their own tables. Did you know the area is home to Blue Diamond Almonds? Food is not only sustenance here, it also provides time with the family.
As Señora Diaz offers White leftovers to take home which he politely declines, she says:
“Don’t say to me NO, how are you going to be family if you don’t eat together?”
That is the essence of this movie. It is all about family. The family by blood, the family by choice amongst the group of runners, the family created by a community that embraced an outsider and more importantly the outsider family that wanted to belong. Food is a great conduit for that. I highly recommend having dinner with family and friends at your local Mexican restaurant before the movie or you will be drooling at each food scene in McFarland, USA.
8. GO for Travel Inspiration!
The production took the cast and crew to some of the most beautiful spots in Southern and Central California, from Lake Castaic to Malibu to the Griffith Park Observatory, in addition to the fields and neighborhoods of Bakersfield and McFarland. I love Destination Races and these are locations to add to my Travel #SomedayList. The students had never been outside their small town and find themselves in awe of the California landscape as they travel in their small school bus to different competitions. A touching scene where they see the ocean for the first time and run into the surf laughing and cheering shows beautifully the joy of exploring this world we live in. Travel expands your horizons like nothing else can and we see that in McFarland, USA.
9. GO for the True Story!
Sports-themed feel good true stories are nothing new to movies. Most follow a pretty similar storyline of the underdogs overcoming the odds to finish first. That doesn’t make the story of Jim White and the McFarland students any less inspiring or heart-warming. It’s encouraging to know that this is not a Disney fabricated Fantasyland. That in the current times we live in of 24 hour bad news cycles there are still stories out there worth celebrating. Over the years since then, the McFarland High School cross-country teams have won nine state championships and the small school is considered a powerhouse in the sport. This man inspired a community to be better. The final scenes showing how many of the members of the original team come out to run with today’s students in McFarland is what sets this story apart. They are still part of the McFarland community. These guys are not characters in a story, this is real life. I wonder why it took 27 years for it to come to the big screen.
McFarland, USA is an inspiring story and we need more of those, don’t you think?
Disney’s 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, and is directed by Niki Caro with screenplay by Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, and story by Cleveland & Gilois. Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi are producing, with Mario Iscovich and Mary Martin serving as executive producers. The film is rated PG.
GO see McFarland, USA!