Kevin Costner’s “McFarland, USA” – Christian Movie Review
Kevin Costner’s new sports film, the wonderfully entertaining and inspiring “McFarland, USA,” tells the true story of a down-on-his-luck coach, Jim White (Costner), and seven Hispanic high school students in California who — besides juggling the demands of high school and helping their parents pick crops in the fields — rise out of obscurity to become legends in cross country running.
This movie was a must-see for me for one reason: I grew up in the small farm town (Shafter, CA) next to McFarland — 19 miles down the road — and I have vivid memories from competing against the McFarland Cougars in football. (McFarland’s football team is also depicted in the film.)
In fact, one of my best friends growing up, Jordan Lewis — now the head coach for Shafter’s cross country team — competed against McFarland as a runner during the Jim White championship years, and he knows Jim personally. His father, Terry Lewis, was the head coach for Shafter’s cross country team during the Jim White years, and Terry elevated Shafter into a powerhouse in its own right — one of McFarland’s most formidable competitors. In other words, the Shafter team knew the McFarland team very well, and Jordan had this to say about why McFarland had such an edge during those years:
Clearly Coach White is a big reason why they had so much success. If you listen to how the runners speak about him (including current runners), you can tell he made a lasting impact on their lives. They knew he truly cared about them, and the guys would work extremely hard because of the respect they had for him. Second, there was a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. If you read some of the stories, some of them are pretty crazy. Running 8-12 miles a day, and going to school, AND working in the fields as much as time allowed. Finally, it eventually became something the whole town was involved in. The town and running are synonymous. It’s amazing how everybody is connected to it. I’m sure there is some embellishing going on in the movie, but it truly is an amazing story.
-Jordan Lewis, Head Coach of Cross Country at Shafter High School
Jordan’s description matches the movie perfectly. The filmmakers got it spot on, though the film never actually mentioned the specific distances they would run during their training — 8-10 miles a DAY?!? Incredible.
It’s a strange feeling, watching a big Disney-produced Hollywood film and seeing screen legend Kevin Costner inhabit the rural world that surrounded you in your childhood and teenage years. And Costner did it with such ease and believability, as if he really had been living there, just down the road from us, all those years. I have much more to say about the film — and I will provide some more local Central Valley perspective — but first…
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality or Romance: A teenage couple holds hands and slow dances. Parents discover their teenage daughter is pregnant.
Violence/Gore: PG violence, nothing gory or even close to PG-13: a man angrily hits the wall, and his son runs to stop him. We see the son later with a bruise on his face, implying that he got hit too. He also sits on a bridge and contemplates throwing himself off. A man is scene with a non-fatal stab wound (not gory, hardly any blood) after an implied fight, and he is placed in an ambulance. A teenage girl who witnesses it is shell-shocked and crying. She has bruises on her legs from being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the fight happens. A man throws a shoe and accidentally cuts the face of a teenager with it after it bounces off and hits him. A boy gets a concussion after a hard hit in football.
Language: Mild PG swear words (one or two d-words).
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None.
Frightening/Intense Content: The scenes with the stabbing and the scene where the boy contemplates suicide are intense, but they stay within their PG bounds.
(Review continues below)
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“McFarland, USA” From a Local Perspective
A friend of mine, in my early years of high school, invited me to her quinceañera. Besides learning to dance to traditional mariachi music (in a dorky guero kind of way), I left that day astonished: it was (and still is) one of the most memorable parties I’ve ever been to. Hispanic communities are very good at celebrating family, and at that quinceañera my friend was treated like royalty by family, relatives, and friends. It was a wild, wonderful, heartwarming experience.
So it’s no surprise that one of the most touching scenes in “McFarland, USA” is when the town throws Jim White’s teenage daughter a surprise quinceañera, which includes a scene that will make all fathers with daughters shed a tear. It’s a perfect example of how the film captures the warmth of small town communities in the Central Valley, with the Valley’s unique combination of rural Hispanic and rural Americana culture.
And it’s one of the most authentic “true story” movies I’ve seen, in terms of capturing the actual environment where the story took place. I checked the locations for the filming, and, besides a scene at a beach in Ventura County and a few in LA, most of the film was shot on-location in McFarland.
Set in 1987, watching the film felt like stepping back into a time machine and seeing certain elements of my childhood all over again, whether it was the way they recreated a small farming town in Central Valley as it would have been in the late ’80s or seeing McFarland High School the way it looked years ago or the way they shot the exterior scenes in the agriculture surrounding the town; it truly felt like the Central Valley in the late ’80s as I remembered it.
This film has an irresistible warmth to it, and not just emotionally. It captured the beauty of the Central Valley: its vast skies and agricultural plains at the magic hour when dusk settles. It showed the huge cloud systems stretching over the little town. John Steinbeck, an author who wrote memorable descriptions of the Central Valley, would have been proud of this film’s visual atmosphere.
Some of the smaller details of McFarland’s regional neighbors were a little off, however, such as when it showed Centennial High School as McFarland’s competitor. The movie takes place in 1987, but Centennial didn’t open until 1993. They should’ve shown Shafter among the competitors because Shafter’s cross country team was (and is) also a local powerhouse that often gave (and still gives) McFarland a run for their money.
But that’s how detailed I have to be to find something that was wrong with the authenticity of this movie. It really was an authentic, sensitively crafted, wonderful film — a perfect family movie.
Worldview/Themes of Redemption
Besides telling the story of the White family and the runners, the film does a fair amount of social commentary. It depicts the life and plight of the migrant worker, and it reminds you of it frequently in the dialogue. In one scene, we even see Jim White going out to pick crops with his runners to better understand their lives.
And, as an aside, Jim White in real life really was that kind of person. When I interviewed Jordan Lewis, the head coach for Shafter’s cross country team (McFarland’s next door neighbor), he described Jim’s personality this way: “I would say calm. Matter of fact. Competitive. Humble. Also just the fact that he is willing to talk to me [one of McFarland’s biggest competitors] shows the character he has. Overall good guy.”
And, after seeing the film, Kevin Costner’s portrayal of White matches Lewis’s description of his personality word-for-word. Costner is definitely one of the best actors in Hollywood, and it’s movies like this one that demonstrates why.
But despite fleshing out the characters of the White family convincingly, the film humanized the Hispanic migrant working population and also avoided taking the lazy route of demonizing white people. It stepped into the grey area between by showing the weaknesses and strengths of humanity itself, whether it was Hispanic or white. In the characters of Jim White and his family, we laugh, yes, as they first arrive to town and awkwardly stick out like a sore thumb in a heavily Hispanic population. But we can’t help but get teary-eyed when the town embraces the Whites as family, and the Whites fall in love (literally, in one case) with the town.
Politicians — some more than others — tend to place demographic badges on people and expect that badge to become the most important, all-consuming identity for that person, often because politicians benefit the most when they can politicize the plight of a people group and organize humanity by labels. The film’s unspoken message is this: the characters are more than just “minority groups” or “pickers” or even “Caucasians” or “gringos”; they’re souls created in God’s image who have names and distinct one-of-a-kind personalities that almost always shatter any particular demographic label or social expectation.
This film’s also a riveting David and Goliath story. McFarland was an even smaller town than my cozy little home town, and yet they overcame some impossible odds and pulled off some amazing accomplishments.
Conclusion: Go See This Movie
Go see this movie. That about sums it up. If you like top-notch sports movies, if you’re a fan of seasoned, pitch-perfect acting, and if you want to see a deeply touching film about strong families that genuinely love each other, it doesn’t get much better than “McFarland, USA.”
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