Friday, February 20, 2015

McFarland, USA [2015]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

Telemundo coverage*
Univision coverage* coverage* (J.L. Rois) review

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (G. Hassenger) review

McFarland, USA [2015] (directed by Niki Caro, screenplay by Grant Thompson, story by Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilios) is a remarkable and true, inspirational story about how a team of "the sons of pickers" from a largely Hispanic, California Central (San Joaquin) Valley town, McFarland, CA, largely "off the map" of California's / American consciousness, "jogged into town" and, well, "RAN AWAY" with CALIFORNIA'S first ever High School All State Cross Country Championship (in 1987) thus beginning A DYNASTY of State Championship winning Cross Country Teams (9 state championships in 14 years) from this previously INVISIBLE town.   

And when I say "invisible," please understand folks that I lived in Los Angeles for 7-8 years, actually during the same years when McFarland's Cross Country team began winning all those championships.  I found myself chuckling in recognition during the film when it portrayed many of the residents of McFarland as characterizing "nearby" BAKERSFIELD as "the town where all the (local) rich(er) people lived."  BAKERSFIELD ;-) ... To Los Angelinos at the time Bakersfield was itself "at the edge of the world" known, above all, as "the last stop on the Interstate before 2-3 hours of Desert on the way to Las Vegas" ;-). 

So this is a GREAT STORY about a team of high school kids from a town as "invisible" as it gets in California (and yet so much of the food that ends up on our tables is grown and PICKED by the residents of towns like McFarland) but who were still able to make their mark ... by winning all those championships.

How come?  Well, in the story, Jim White (played by Kevin Costner) --  yes, his name really was "White" (or "Sr. Blanco" as some of the residents started to call him ;-) -- a transplanted high school teacher / football coach with "some history of previous anger issues" (hence why he found himself needing to take a job in McFarland, CA ...) quickly found that while the kids at his school were simply NOT built for football they seemed almost ideally suited for running.

Why?  Well, the kids ROUTINELY spent a good part of their day-to-day life RUNNING ... running TO THE FIELDS _at the break of dawn_ to help their parents FOR A COUPLE OF HOURS with picking BEFORE SCHOOL, RUNNING then FROM THE FIELDS TO SCHOOL before classes started, and RUNNING then BACK TO THE FIELDS to help with work again AFTER SCHOOL.  They ran like this, EVERY DAY, OFTEN SCORCHING DESERT HEAT.  Nowhere short of California's Central Valley or perhaps in Ethiopia or the Middle East could have someone come up with a more demanding Cross Country training program than the one ALREADY LIVED _EVERY DAY_ by the students from this otherwise utterly average high school.

So the kids were naturals for this sport.  But how to convince the kids / parents that it's worth it to pursue organizing a cross country (and presumably track) team for a high school in a town about which EVERYBODY IN THE TOWN was convinced that nobody "outside" cared?

A parent, Sr. Diaz (played by Omar Leyva) who had three high school aged sons -- David (played by Rafael Martinez), Damacio (played by Michael Aguero) and Danny (played by Ramiro Rodriguez) -- kindly but tellingly tells Sr. White that "every hour that you have my sons training for you after school is an hour less that my kids help me put food on our table."  

Then too "Coach White" didn't come to McFarland alone.  He came with his wife (played by Maria Bello) and two daughters -- Julie (played by Morgan Saylor) who was TURNING FIFTEEN and 10 or so year old Jamie (played by Elsie Fisher) -- all blonde haired / blue eyed and originally from Idaho, who had their own adjustments to make.  When "the Whites" first arrived in town, named McFarland though it was, seeing all the Mexican flags, Spanish language signs and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere, bewildered, 10 year old Jamie quite honestly asked her parents, "Are we in Mexico?"

But they all did find their way to adjust and quite quickly.  That Jamie was turning 15, of course, gave the film-makers the opportunity to have the family, with help of their new neighbors/friends, throw her a quinceañera.  And her escort became the cute boy, Tomas Valles (played by Carlos Pratts), who was becoming the star of the budding new Cross Country team.

It all makes for a lovely story and what is even nicer is that it's largely true.  Perhaps most impressive of all is that while all seven of members of the original 1987 State Championship winning team ended up going to various colleges / universities afterwards (a virtually unimagined possibility prior to their beginning to run on the team) almost all of them returned back to McFarland after earning their degrees to play significant roles in the community afterwards (as teachers, detectives for the police department, etc).

The film itself gives visibility to a large cast of largely Hispanic actors including those named above.  One hopes that we will be seeing more of them in Hollywood films in the future.

So this is a win all around, and if it does cause a few people in the years to come to "take an Exit at Bakersfield" and then a detour to McFarland on their way to Vegas to see perhaps the school or otherwise the town where this remarkable cross-country / distance running dynasty was born, then that would be great as well.

So good job folks!  Good job!

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