Truth meets convenient dramatization in McFarland, a middling piece of familial and societal uplift about love and community.
Rather loosely based on a true story set in 1987, Jim White (Kevin Costner) takes to the impoverished and Latino community of McFarland in California. It’s the only place he can find a teaching job in order to support his wife and two daughters having been fired from his previous job for being too stern on his kids.
Forced to teach phys ed., White is dubbed ‘blanco’ by his less than enthused students, beginning what will very clearly be a slow bonding of disparate generations and communities. First fearful, second questioning, White, his wife (Maria Bello), and the kids slowly become acclimated to a community, but for the patriarch, it may be too much so.
For White, seeking to inspire as well as be inspired, is training McFarland’s first ever cross country team in order to compete in the state championships. Dedicated to the students however means less time at home, and so does proceed a story about duty. More so though, because White sees in these kids, many of whom work as pickers in the fields before and after school, incredible raw talent, he begins to groom them in what is a rather formulaic underdog sports movie progression.
It’s not just a typical sports movie; it’s also a light middlebrow drama looking to gingerly bridge an apparent cultural divide. That is, McFarland can’t help but hammer home its steady theme, as birthday party, family dinners, car washes, and other conversations and events remind the viewer that everyone can get along and learn from each other regardless of their background.
To its great credit, McFarland does quite well to enliven the act of cross country running where no one, not the audience or those coaches or family watching from the stands, knows who actually wins until a careful exercise in mathematic. Costner continues to thrive in the empathetic father role, as the man who eventually looks inward to become a better husband, leader, and person.
Unfortunately, the film runs a bit too far from the truth to be anything but a carefully crafted piece of controlled filmmaking (the real White arrived earlier, didn’t quite have the same doubts or dramatic turns). For its good intentions and absolutely beautifully, sun-soaked California panoramas, McFarland starts to run on empty, exhausting the viewer with an exceedingly familiar story.