Saturday, March 7, 2015

'McFarland, USA' review

Disney's sports movie formula is pretty well-worn at this point and everybody seems to know it. Fish out of water comes and turns a team of losers into champions while learning valuable life lessons along the way. It happens every time. However, that doesn't mean the team over at Disney can't turn their predictable plots into something special every once in a while. Miracle is a legitimately great film, Remember the Titans is very impressive and Million Dollar Arm was one of the more underrated films of last year. McFarland, USA falls a little bit behind that esteemed pack, but it's still a decently enjoyable experience.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is the football coach of a failing team who ends up being fired after throwing a cleat at a student and drawing blood. White moves with his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and his two children to McFarland, California, a poor Mexican community dominated by poor sports performance and hard work in the fields by the kids. However, Jim realizes that these teens are fast runners and he decides to start a cross country running team. With a running team anchored by troubled star Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), McFarland is able to fight to the top and compete with the best cross country schools in the state. And along the way, Jim becomes closer with the community and finds a place to belong.

When this film was first announced, a lot of people rolled their eyes at the premise. Many conversations about the film probably went like this "Seriously? A film about cross country is gonna suck!" But despite those odds, Disney strikes again. They have a formula for a reason, and it works every time. While not as emotionally involving as Miracle or as vibrantly alive as last year's Million Dollar Arm, McFarland takes a dash of both to create a pretty satisfying flick. Kevin Costner, the king of the sports movie, is impressive as always and Carlos Pratts gives a vulnerable, deeply emotional performance that could break him into the mainstream. You likely won't remember McFarland in the long run, but it's a pretty good flick for what it's aiming to do.

McFarland is a movie that relies on its heart and that's a good thing. If this movie didn't have such strong performances and a good emotional core, I doubt that I would have been so positive about it. The film is nearly twenty minutes too long and it's not exactly a knockout film. There's nothing inherently special about it and the story is fairly standard territory. But credit must be given to director Niki Caro and the team of screenwriters for making this an interesting, heartwarming and consistently engaging movie. These guys do a lot with some merely decent material.

The screenwriters and actors work together well to create a team of characters that are likable and compelling. They play into cliches but never seem completely uninteresting. I knew where Jim White's arc was headed, but I still found myself interested in his actions and I found him to be a good guy. I knew that Thomas would eventually join the team, escape his troubled family life and become successful, but I was still sucked in by Pratts' terrific performance. I knew that Thomas and Jim's daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) would eventually date. And in the end, I knew that McFarland would come out victorious. But despite all of the predictability, I was still consistently engaged and entertained by this flick and it's all because of the care that the filmmakers took with these characters.

Caro also manages to create some certifiable dramatic tension with the race scenes. There's intensity and humor during those sequences and I enjoyed them to the fullest. The film has some strong, sun-bleached cinematography as well and the soundtrack is very good. Overall, this is a well-directed film and one that has many great aspects to it.

McFarland, USA is a standard Disney sports film and is similar to everything else that they've done so far. If you liked the previous Disney films, you'll find a lot to enjoy with this one. It's well-executed, highly entertaining and filled with compelling and impeccably written characters. Kevin Costner and Carlos Pratts make for a great acting duo and I was impressed by the depth of the relationship between the two. McFarland isn't a masterpiece, but it is significantly more impressive than most of the films we've seen so far this year.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.1/10)

Image Credits: Awards Daily, Hollywood Reporter, Joblo

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