Kevin Costner Right at Home in ‘McFarland, USA’

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Baseball…football…We know Costner loves sports-themed movies, and has a developed a penchant for socially conscious ones too, like the recent “Black or White,” His latest, “McFarland, USA,” an adapted true story, combines these two career themes, as he plays Jim White, a teacher and football coach who has a hard time keeping a job. Down on his luck, he and the family head to the mostly poor and Hispanic McFarland, California where he is to be the assistant football coach at the high school. It isn’t long before problems start between him and the head coach resulting in White stepping down.

While still a coach, though, he notes the speed and condition of the students,most of whom are agricultural pickers when not in class, and convinces a reluctant principal to let him start a cross country team. Hollywood loves to shoot in California, especially around their studios, at the beach, & in the mountains…But in places like McFarland in the Central Valley? …not so much. White’s daughter says it best on the family’s way into town, “Daddy are we in Mexico?”

At first, the student regard him as an alien presence; White is more fearful and defensive than outright prejudiced. But over the course of the film, understanding grows. White, in one striking sequence, accepts a challenge to accompany one of his student’s families out to the fields to pick for a day… and the families slowly realize that the lost wages from their kids’ time spent with the team represent the promise of a better life. The young, unknown actors who play the team bring an enthusiasm, probably not unlike the characters they represent from a generation before, to their roles, and along with Costner, make “McFarland, USA” a feel-good experience without the baggage that often accompanies this kind of film.