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McFarland/McFarland, USA


Stars: Kevin Costner, Mario Bello, Morgan Saylor, Michael Aguero, Sergio Avelar, Hector Duran, Rafael Martinez, Martha Higareda, Johnny Ortiz, Carlos Pratts, Ramiro Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Valente Rodriguez, Vanessa Martinez, Chris Ellis Jr., Diana Maria Riva, Elsie Fisher.

Director: Niki Caro

My usual (regrettable, of course) reaction to the opening credit “based on a true story” is a cynical belief that what follows has been worked over for bigger box-office takings.

This time, however, it would appear (and I did some research as well as relying on the Critics' Crib Sheet aka Production Notes) that the essential storyline and setting of McFarland (released in the United States as McFarland, USA
And, where Hollywood comes into the story, ‘invented’ events and themes are well integrated and add to the overall narrative.

For which screenwriters Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, director Niki Caro and an excellent cast, headed by Kevin Costner, deserve praise.

And, the first time for quite a while, Costner gets a good strong role as a (in the beginning) flawed High School football coach and plays it well all the way. We first meet him, hot tempered and opposed to cooling down, being fired from a high school in Boise, Idaho, for his verbal abuse and rough treatment of athletes.

Broke (“We’re living on a teacher’s salary” his wife, Maria Bello reminds him) and unlikely to get a good job with his record, Costner drives his family to the penurious California town of McFarland where Mexican-American schoolkids end up working in the fields to help their families survive and then having to survive a day at school.

Costner and his family learn fast just how far the social scale they have fallen when, on their first night, they go to a café for an all-American dinner only to be told they do not have burgers, only tacos.

Almost inevitably Costner finds he is something of a fish out of water at when he gets the job of athletics coach at the local, mainly Latino, high school and has both to adapt to his new circumstance and bond with the youngsters.

Which he does by training youngsters to be cross-country runners and, through his encouragement and the trainees’ newly-found enjoyment in a sport which their disgusted headmaster dismisses by telling Costner, “That’s a private school sport!”

And yes, the runners go all the way to the top and finally achieve the All American Dream by winning the State cross-country running championships, an event that caused the local store in McFarland to close for the first time in 25 years as townspeople headed for the championships.

Equally inevitably, Costner and his family end up being absorbed - and happy with it - into the community

Of course it’s innately heartwarming (there are times when feels that it could replace heating in a cinema in winter) but the essential truth of the story deserves it – key real-life, now grown-up, characters appear on screen at the finale – and the feelgood factor is justified.

Caro’s decision to shoot her film on location in McFarland pays high dividends in terms of credibility, particularly with regard to the all-too-frequently used movie plotline of character redemption.

And Costner, perfectly cast and giving his best performance in a long time, gives a laid-back portrayal that gives the story a strong centre.

It may not be a great film (after all, it’s not entirely subtitled) and it’s hardly a new subject. but it is certainly enjoyable and, at times, genuinely inspiring.

Even for someone like me for whom sport holds minimal interest.

Alan Frank

USA 2015. UK Distributor: Walt Disney. Technicolor.
129 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: PG.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 25 Sep 2015