By now, Disney’s formula for an Inspirational Sports Movie is about as secret as McDonald’s’ “secret sauce” or the water-to-syrup blend that makes Coca-Cola “classic.” Which is to say: You only notice if something’s a little bit off.
“McFarland, USA”, Disney’s latest creation in the genre, mostly sticks to the recipe. It pulls from the familiar bag of cliches, tested by Disney scientists and confirmed by its accountants, to nudge along the plot: A journeyman high-school coach lands in a poor, mostly Mexican California town, finds himself coaching a ragtag outfit of cross-country phenoms, and stuns everybody when…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
That said, there were moments when “McFarland”‘s cliches did something besides make me roll my eyes so hard I got a headache. A few made me want to get out of my seat and clap for “best performance by a cliche.” And yes, there were a few that made me stop and think: Can a decades-old, commercial genre actually adapt to tackle new issues?
Here’s where I came down.
5. Extremely subtle product placement
When Coach Jim White (played by Kevin Costner) figures out that these kids can run, he sends them out on a little jaunt to see what they can do. But he makes the mistake of trotting along with them, apparently forgetting that he’s a flamed-out football coach, not a teenager approaching his prime. He waves them ahead, waiting until they’re out of sight to collapse by the icebox in front of the local corner store.
It looks like about a billion degrees out when the wise old store manager reaches outside to hand Coach White…a nice, frosty Coca-Cola. Coach is as thankful as his exhaustion will allow, and he holds the bottle to his forehead. The only way it could have been better is if he’d swigged it and exhaled an icy ahhhh.
4. Return of the ’80s bad guy
There’s something comforting about setting the movie in 1987, a year after Top Gun and firmly in the era of the uber-coiffed villain.
It gives the running heroes of “McFarland” some f’real badguys to confront as they match their game up against the toast of California. And these badguys deliver at the starting line, with sneers about Taco Bell and how Mexicans train by running from the cops. They’re perfect: absurdly tall, lily-white, decked out in top-end gear, chuckling and high-fiving with every dig. When Danny Diaz, one of the McFarland runners, sees the competition at the state championships, he literally leans against the school bus and has a good puke.
But with nearly 30 years passed since 1987 (be still my heart), it’s hard to find them as threatening as Cobra Kai. “McFarland” doesn’t overdo the tension between its heroes and their “country club” competition; it sticks mostly to the team’s story and its running. Which is nice, for us ’80s-bred kids: We can finally relax and have a good chuckle at this retro take on a Hollywood archetype.
3. The chubby kid saves the day
“McFarland’s” driving relationship is the one between Coach White and his top runner, a somber and wounded Thomas Valles (played by Carlos Pratts). But in the final stretch of the state championship — spoiler alert!! — it becomes clear that Valles can’t win it for McFarland all by himself. At the finish line, Coach White races through scenarios, realizing that McFarland can’t win, not unless…unless…
Danny Diaz (played by Ramiro Rodriguez), who’s built like a Buick and is Coach White’s slowest man, somehow throttles past a dozen runners and gets across the line. And it turns out to be…well, I promised I wouldn’t say.
Someone has to save the day in a Disney movie, but give “McFarland” marks for choosing the chubby kid. Disney has its repertoire of “feel-good” tricks, but this one has traces of something genuine: There are scenes where Danny’s character seems to be hustling at a pretty good pace.
2. It’s about heart! Or…something
Right before the state championship, Coach White clears his throat for an Important Motivational Speech. He’s trained them through the infernal Central Valley heat. He’s picked vegetables with them in the endless, sun-lashed fields. “These kids don’t do what you do,” he says to them. “They can’t even imagine it.”
Then he gets to the coaching, and his main advice for running miles and miles over hilly, dusty terrain is to…count on their hearts? Oy vey on the sentimentality, ham-fisted at best; I didn’t run cross-country, but I did play sports, and coaches don’t talk much about heart. What they talk about, ad nauseam, is technique.
That may have made a nice substitution for the Important Motivational Speech here — since it’s already clear that these kids run ten miles a day after picking vegetables at dawn. They know they’ve got heart, coach. But they’re pretty darn good runners, too — any advice there?
1. He rescued them…he just didn’t know they’d rescue him.
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times falls for this hook, line, and sinker:
…the essence of this story, at least in the film version, is that Coach White needed saving as much if not more so than his runners, and that his discovery of what is of value in the community he’s entered is as important as what his charges get out of embracing cross country.
It’s surprising to read something so credulous in this jaded age, but it does get to the crux of what the movie’s really up against. In “McFarland” is an opportunity to take an overplayed genre and spin it toward something new — something subversive, even — not just set the internet on fire with accusations about the “white savior.”
And I join much of the internet in saying: It kind of does. After some early awkwardness, Coach White understands that he’s an outsider to this community, and he should participate in it if he hopes to understand it. In a show of humility, he even goes out and picks vegetables in the fields, experiencing the realest kind of empathy: physical toil. I don’t know that I would call him a “one-man force for racial harmony,” but it’s a start. Some might even take it as a sign of intelligent life in the executive suites in Hollywood.
SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU
Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
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