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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that McFarland, USA is an inspiring sports drama about a Mexican-American cross-country team from rural California. Based on a true story, the movie stars Kevin Costner as the team's coach, who's determined to guide a bunch of farm workers' kids into a team that's good enough to compete in the state's first cross-country championship. Although there are a few mature themes regarding class and privilege, as well as a couple of instances of fist fights, a possible suicide attempt, a knife fight that lands a couple of kids in the hospital, and a father who's aggressive toward his family, there are also tons of positive messages about teamwork, cooperation, and community. Coach White isn't perfect but means well and is devoted to his runners, and the portrayal of the students and their families is nuanced and uplifting -- most of the boys have hardworking, loving, intergenerational families.
What's the story?
McFARLAND, USA is based on the true story of a town in rural Northern California that had nothing going for it except fields to pick and a prison that reminded its youth that their options were limited. Enter disgraced high-school coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who in 1987 moves his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters to McFarland to teach gym. One day, White follows one of his students, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), who can run an almost five-minute mile. The next day, Jim asks the principal whether he can start a cross-country team and puts together a motley crew of runners that range from the reluctant Thomas, who only participates in exchange for not getting suspended, to wise-cracking Johnny (Hector Duran), vain Victor (Sergio Avelar), and the three Diaz brothers, one of whom (Danny) is considerably bigger than the average distance runner. As Jim learns to coach runners and the guys learn to compete as a team, they set their sights on California's first statewide cross-country championship.
Is it any good?
This is a poignant, uplifting tale, even though there's a certain predictability in movies about sports underdogs. (You're not going to expect them to lose if someone has bothered to make a movie about them.) Some may quibble that this is another "white savior" movie, but it's firmly not. Coach White had never even coached cross country before creating the team at McFarland; he's winging it just as much as the boys, who really only know how to run fast at first -- with no notion of pacing or hill and speed work. The team changes and challenges the coach just as much as he guides and pushes them to look beyond the stereotypes of "pickers" and see what gifts hard work and discipline are -- not only in running, but in life. Costner is in fine form as a grumpy older coach unsure of what to make of his unfamiliar surroundings and his team full of boys who've been working fields since they were 10 or 11.
And the boys -- it's hard not to fall in love with the lot of them, especially Pratts' broody Thomas (who naturally falls for Coach White's daughter) and eternal optimist Danny Diaz, who never gives up, despite being easily 30 pounds heavier than his brothers and teammates. You just know that Danny is going to save the day -- why else would the filmmakers bother to show him huffing and puffing over "hills" (McFarland has no natural hills, so they run over covered mounds of almond husks)? But that doesn't mean you don't tear up when it finally happens. The best part of the movie, though, isn't just the sports: it's that the filmmakers don't portray the community as in need of the White family's generosity. To the contrary, it's the abuelitas and mamas who come to the rescue when Coach White flakes on his daughter's 15th birthday. The community puts on a touching quinceañera for her, making it clear that White -- whom the kids affectionately call Blanco -- is one of them. Yes, this is a familiar story -- most sports movies are -- but see for yourself what it means to be American in the Fruit Bowl of California, where running together and running fast lead a bunch of boys to a sense of accomplishment and a coach to a sense of home.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the power of sports stories like McFarland, USA. Why do you think it's so meaningful to root for the underdog? How do running stories compare to those about other sports?
How did the other teams underestimate the McFarland boys? What are the dangers of stereotyping and discrimination?
What challenges did Coach White and his wife face living in McFarland? Why did Thomas feel reluctant to trust White or the idea that the future could be better?
- In theaters: February 20, 2015
- On DVD or streaming: June 2, 2015
- Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Vincent Martella
- Director: Niki Caro
- Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts, Great Boy Role Models, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character Strengths: Communication, Teamwork
- Run time: 128 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic material, some violence and language
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Seal
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