Movie Review: “McFarland, USA”

The emotional story of Mexican immigrants who start a successful cross country program is based on a true story

My daughter, Lorna, recently completed her first season of high school cross country. She originally got involved in the sport because of some free time in her schedule that she wanted to use to stay in shape for soccer, which is her favorite sport. In the short time I’ve watched Lorna run, I have to say that I’ve become a huge fan of the sport, and not just because she’s good at it. It’s a sport in which everybody gets to participate. There are no cuts, although a few meets here and there have a maximum number of runners per school who can participate in a race. I’ve never heard a cross country coach berate their athletes. The most important thing for the vast majority of runners is not what place they finish in, but rather whether or not they were able to improve on their previous best times. Sometimes, the most drama in cross country is not about who comes in first, but who can push themselves enough at the end of the race to catch someone who was ahead of them. The community of supporters celebrates all the runners, cheering on everyone regardless of what place they finish in or what jersey they wear. And there’s really no better sport to practice during a worldwide pandemic.

Macomb High School girls cross country team at 2021 Illinois Sectionals. Lorna is second from left, wearing number 1323.
Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

Although the cross country season has just ended, I’m already feeling a little withdrawal, so I decided to investigate whether or not there were any movies about the sport. Not surprisingly, it’s very easy to find famous movies about baseball, football, and basketball, but there are not that many movies about running. How many can you think of off the top of your head besides “Chariots of Fire”? I found “McFarland, USA” streaming on Disney Plus, and I didn’t expect it to be as profound as it was. And I certainly didn’t think that it would overlap with my interests in Hispanic culture.

As a warning, there may be some mild spoilers about this film in what follows. Feel free to come back after watching it.

Taking place in the late 1980s, “McFarland, USA” (2015) is the true story of a high school football coach, Jim White, who has to take an undesirable teaching job in McFarland, California after being fired from his previous position for accidentally hurting one of his players. With his wife and daughter, he moves to this new community, which is almost entirely comprised of undocumented Mexican immigrants who work almost like slaves picking fruits and vegetables in the local farms. Here’s the film’s official trailer.

“McFarland, USA” official trailer, Disney

Mr. White, played by Kevin Costner, is less than excited to be in McFarland. The family almost immediately begins to look for a way out. White worries for his family’s safety, based mostly on stereotypes of the town’s residents. The head coach of the football team successfully schemes to remove White from the position of Assistant Coach after only the first game. When seeing how fast his students are capable of running in his physical education courses when properly motivated, he gets the idea of starting a cross country program, which was a new sport in the state of California at the time. Despite knowing nothing about the sport, he gets the impression that the kids are born runners as he watches how fast they run to and from the fields before and after school.

In the beginning, there is very little support for the program. The school’s principal, who thinks that cross country is a sport for rich white kids who go to country clubs, reluctantly allows White to form a team. He sometimes has to bribe students to participate, using the team as a way for them to avoid serious punishments for bad behavior. Perhaps the biggest roadblock to get the students to participate is their own parents, who can’t always justify letting their kids run when they’re needed in the fields.

And the young men face challenges in the sport as well, despite their natural ability. Other schools laugh at them for not having better uniforms. Other coaches show their racism in conversations with White, wondering how he can even communicate with the kids. And they live in a community that’s completely flat, which doesn’t allow them to train for the hills on the courses during the races.

Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles in “McFarland, USA.” Disney films.

“McFarland, USA” is a film of touching moments. For example, White spends a day working in the fields with his runners to show them that he cares about them and wants to learn about how hard their life is. He visits them at their homes to meet their parents, who are very hospitable to him. The families throw a fiesta de quince años for White’s daughter. And White takes the boys to see the ocean for the first time in their lives after they qualify for the state championships. For me, the most touching moment comes in an epilogue after the state championships, as we see the real Mr. White and boys from the film, who are all grown up. We learn that the program that White started has been a perennial powerhouse in the cross country, having won the California state championships many times. Despite offers from bigger, more affluent programs, White ended up spending the rest of his career there. It’s touching to see that all of the boys portrayed in the movie have gone on to graduate from college and have successful lives. Many have returned to live in McFarland, where they have various careers; some are even teachers now. And those who are there still have a relationship with the cross country program, training occasionally with current students.

It’s hard for me to find anything about “McFarland, USA” that I didn’t like. One minor complaint would be that we don’t get to know all of the boys on the team equally well. The film tends to focus on Thomas, who is the fastest runner on the team and a potential love interest for White’s daughter. Given that there are seven boys on the team, it would be difficult in a movie like this to get to know all of them in the same way.

As I was watching “McFarland, USA,” I did have the thought that it was setting up to be a story about a white guy who miraculously helped poor Mexicans to be successful. As I thought about it more, however, it occurred to me that although White is an honorable person who played a special role in the lives of his athletes, the real heroes are the boys themselves. After all, they worked so hard in the fields doing work that nobody else would do (before and after school), train intensely for a difficult sport, and get good enough grades to graduate and go on to college. Many people played a role in those accomplishments. And the boys change White more than he changes them.

It would be interesting to know what aspects of the story are embellished for the movie. I have the impression that some of the events that were shown to take place really happened over a much longer period of time, but I’m not sure. There has recently been a follow up documentary about the boys in the film, which should answer some of the questions I have about its veracity. I haven’t seen it yet, but I plan to do so soon. Here’s a link to it, if you’re interested.

In conclusion, “McFarland, USA” is a really good film. It has a compelling story with plenty of drama and moments of humor. The action is exciting, even for fans of other sports. There are a number of twists and surprising heroes. The best thing that I can say about it is that it shines a light on a community of people that doesn’t get a lot of attention, even though the rest of the country owes a large debt of gratitude to them. “McFarland, USA” is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

As an aside, a final aspect of the film I wanted to mention briefly is its soundtrack, which includes the song “Juntos,” from one of my favorite Spanish-language singers, Juanes. Below is the official video for this excellent song. Enjoy!

“Juntos” by Juanes

Did you see “McFarland, USA”? Let us know what you thought about it in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on your favorite social media. ¡Gracias!

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