McFarland, USA outruns sports movie clichés

When it comes to portraying big, strong, corn-fed everyman types onscreen, no one holds a candle to the all-American charms of Kevin Costner. Hell, the man practically bleeds apple pie. And for more than 30 years, Costner’s homespun charms and Gary Cooper good looks have made him the go-to guy for big Hollywood movies with heart.

A quiet, surprisingly versatile actor in Oscar-winning fare like JFK and Dances with Wolves, Costner really comes alive in against-the-odds underdog sports movies like Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and Tin Cup. In fact, Costner is so good at this brand of rousing, rise-from-the-ashes sports stories that he is practically a sub-genre unto himself: the Kevin Costner sports movie.

While his recent cinematic output has been a bit spotty of late, McFarland, USA is the first great Kevin Costner sports movie of the new millennium. Warm, heartfelt and crowd-pleasing, McFarland is based on the true story of disgraced high school football coach Jim White (Costner) finding his true calling as a high school track coach in one of the poorest farming communities in California’s Central Valley in 1987.

Moving with his wife (Mario Bello) and two young daughters to the predominately Mexican-American burg of McFarland, Costner stands out immediately. Even his name is White. And though films like this often veer into the icky “great white hope” domain where the white character saves the poor non-white folks from themselves and gives their lives meaning through sports, education, music or sometimes all three, McFarland is a balanced story beautifully told.

Directed by New Zealand native, Niki Caro, who burst onto the Hollywood scene with her lush, dreamlike work on 2002’s Oscar-nominated Whale Rider, McFarland has an earthy, lived-in quality that grounds the story in a time and place and keeps the sports movie cliches at a minimum.

That said, those looking for intense, emotionally fraught “sports movie moments” will find them in abundance here. Following the stories of the young runners Costner coaches – several of whom work as “pickers” in the lettuce fields before and after school – as well as White’s, Caro captures the textures and often gritty realities of Mexican-American life in the region like few mainstream Hollywood films ever have. And while there is a trend toward fetishizing non-white life and especially ethnic food in movies of this sort – “Ay, Dios mío! The gringo ate too much hot salsa! Ha ha!” – here the food scenes, which are plentiful, are put together in such a casual, authentic fashion that you can almost smell the mole simmering on the stove.

McFarland is beautifully shot by Emmy-winning True Detective cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and veteran director of photography Terry Stacey and the writing, editing and production design are also top-notch, but the heart of the film is its amazing cast.

Featuring a literal who’s-who of up-and-coming Latino talent, McFarland is anchored by star-making turns from Carlos Pratts (TV’s The Bridge), Johnny Ortiz (TV’s American Crime), Diana Maria Riva (What Women Want) and newcomer Ramiro Rodriquez as Danny, the team’s heavy-set mascot. Tender, touching and woefully under-seen in theaters last spring, McFarland is just the sort of cool, unheralded gem that makes IFE worth watching in the first place.

Currently playing on select Cathay Pacific, Delta and United flights worldwide, McFarland, USA is also available to stream on Amazon Instant Video, Google Plus and iTunes.