‘McFarland USA’ is Sweet, Sweet Sentiment at its Best (Movie Review)

McFarland USA

Disney is Disney because nobody does what they do like them, and ‘McFarland USA’ is the perfect example. Set in the agricultural center of California in 1987, ‘McFarland USA’ is formulaic and predictable, but in all the right ways. A white teacher hilariously and literally called Jim White (Kevin Costner) with a rough past moves to McFarland because it’s the only school that will take him. Threatened by the “gangster” culture and alien community, he wants to leave immediately, but after he begins teaching at the predominately Mexican school, he finds a home in the community. He sees the potential in his students when he watches them run through the dirt on their way to pick fruit and vegetables in the fields, and starts a cross country team that helps propel the boys (and the community) to a better life.


It sounds cheesy, and it totally is, but it’s cheesy in all the right ways. You care about these kids, you know they’re going to win (because Disney wouldn’t make this film if they didn’t), but you’re still rooting for them. And the film is formulaic in all ways but one: there’s no big conflict. That’s right, in a genre bogged down with predictable pratfalls, this inspirational story doesn’t build you up to tear you down to build you up. I wish I’d known that going in to the film, because I spent the whole time waiting for everything to go wrong. The film flirts with disaster, but never really falls. Normally, that would be considered to be a huge structural problem (and it is), but it actually allows you to sit back and enjoy watching Kevin Costner try to reach these kids; it’s a feel-good story for the sake of feeling good.


Kevin Costner leads the cast as the by the books white savior, but there’s a reason you cast somebody like Costner in this role. He could’ve easily phoned in this performance, but he brings gravitas, warmth and validity to the role. His supporting cast, including Carlos Pratts, who previously had a role in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, is made of relative unknowns is fantastic too. They’re written distinctly, beyond “group of Mexican kids,” and they each bring something to the film. Their performances, personality and incredible likeableness distracts you from the fact that the story is centered on Costner, and you want them to succeed.


The look of the film is gorgeous too. The locations feel genuine, and the sense of community is palpable through the screen. I imagine it’s very difficult to make long distance, cross country running exciting, but Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) manages to do just that. There’s a fine balance between who’s saving who as well: the kids fight their own battles at home with a little help from Mr. White, and White has his own family issues he has to handle with a little help from his new community.


Pictured: Race Relations Between Latinos and Whites Fixed

McFarland USA is far from groundbreaking. It’s just a simple, sentimental, feel-good underdog story that manages to be poignant and relevant even today, almost thirty years later. We’ve seen this type of film before many times, but it’s nice to be reminded why we make these kinds of movies, and it’s refreshing to see a film where not only is our white savior saved by those he’s trying to save, but that touches on race (in both senses of the word) in a way we don’t see very often. It also has a fantastic “where are they now” epilogue with the original Mr. White and crew.

mcfarland usa


1 Response to “‘McFarland USA’ is Sweet, Sweet Sentiment at its Best (Movie Review)”

  1. Brian White

    I love this opening “Disney is Disney because nobody does what they do like them”