Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
While director Niki Caro (North Country) doesn't cover new ground in "McFarland, USA," a new film that tells the real life story of a Latino track team that succeeded in the mid 1980 despite laboring at migrant farm work, the energy expressed is impossible to deny.
Kevin Costner, as the no nonsense coach Jim White, fits into his role like a pair of old shoes or Indy's fedora. We know what we're getting but its comforting in a Saturday Matinee kind of way, and Costner has a leathery, but cozy charisma that holds the screen and the audience in place.
Coach White is a the locker room during football halftime and as we can predict, he is nudging and trying to pep up his players. Suddenly one of the boys get mouthy and Jim, meaning to scare the rebellious uncouth young man, throws a shoe at him, drawing blood.
Jim is fired and heads for McFarland California: a small depressed town of produce pickers. His kids wonder if he missed the exit and he quickly acquires a job of phys ed teacher.
The new house is the size of a children's toy block. The Latino neighborhood regards Jim with suspicion. Getting the high school kids motivated is an even bigger challenge, as they are set in apathy.
The verve of the film is in its rapidity and movement, and its amusing rounded characters, especially in the character of Thomas (Carlos Pratts) and the irrepressible Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez). The film does have a familiar Disney pattern, that's true, from the coach saying you can do it, don't give up, to the usual troubled teens. But just when you are hit with a signature cliche, as in "The Million Dollar Arm," the film sweeps along with color and motion and this together with Costner's suburban cowboy charm warms in just the right places. Each of the kids from the Diaz brothers to Thomas and Danny are played smoothly with enough time to deliver their own eccentricities.
Not since Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones role has there been such an iconic voice that we respond to and identify, the tough love sound of warm leaves, or the salty mariner, precisely because it speaks of the Hollywood Universal---time honored and worn but never pretentious.
Disney has it all down like a cinematic Coke recipe and it will spring the waterworks despite all. Better yet, it never feels heavy or sodden. The acting is handled simply in brief but emotional detail, and with a plot progression that is so easily recognizable from baseball stories to the warm cross-cultural marinades of "The Hundred Foot Journey," every note is so honestly given, that all formulaic concerns become like carbonation.
Charm and harmony in diversity is what we get here, all in brilliant tones. And, if that is not enough there is a bit of magical realism in depicting the runners who know the "language of the birds." When Kevin Costner delivers his smoky words of Americana while turning his unassuming smile, we feel it. Somehow, everything seen several times is new again.
"McFarland USA" will sneak up on you and have you cheering. This gentle yet earthy story is unapologetically feel-good through and through.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org