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'McFarland USA': Latino Students Run Toward a Better Future

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Last month, Lionsgate Films brought us the story of a plucky group of Latino high school students from poor families whose new teacher raises their expectations and who perform unexpectedly well in interscholastic competition against much-more experienced and affluent rivals.

That movie was "Spare Parts," with the comedian George Lopez as the teacher-coach battling at least one uncooperative parent as well as some of his own demons. The competition was underwater robotics.

On Friday, Walt Disney Studios brings us the story of a plucky group of Latino high school students from even poorer families whose new teacher raises their expectations and who perform unexpectedly well in interscholastic competition against much-more experienced and affluent rivals.

The new movie is "McFarland USA," with screen veteran Kevin Costner as the teacher-coach battling at least one uncooperative parent as well as some of his own demons. And instead of robotics, the competition here is cross country running.

Leave it to Disney to favor youth sports as a movie storyline ("Remember the Titans," "The Mighty Ducks") over STEM education.

Still, "McFarland USA" is a winner, with an inspiring adaptation of the true story of Latino students at a dirt-poor high school in California's Central Valley turning to cross country to bring some glory to their town and higher athletic and academic expectations to their own lives. Here's the trailer:

It's 1987, and Costner is Jim White, who has just lost his job as football coach at another high school because of his temper. He ends up in McFarland, a poor farming community north of Bakersfield, Calif., where the high school principal reminds him he is running out of options. White takes the job as physical education teacher and assistant football coach. His wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters reluctantly join him in moving into a modest McFarland bungalow whose previous occupant has left a Virgin of Guadalupe mural on an interior wall.

The Whites' neighbor at their new home offers them a housewarming gift—a chicken.

White quickly clashes with the head football coach and loses his assistant coaching slot. During a gym class, his students (all Latino, seemingly all of Mexican heritage) are less than motivated. But when White gets them to finally run some laps, he notices that a few of the boys are pretty speedy.

California's high school sports governing body has just created the state's first cross country championship. White thinks McFarland could form a team. All it takes is a minimum of seven runners, some shoes, and some cheap uniforms.

"Cross country—that's a private school sport," the principal says. "They breathe different air than we do."

Undaunted, White forms the team. Then the film faces the challenge of explaining to the audience cross country's tangled team scoring system, where the low score prevails. Just like golf, the coach tells his team.  "Do we look like we play a lot of golf?" one of the team members tells him.

In fact, for several of the students, most of their waking hours outside of school are spent doing something far from golf or any other leisure pursuits: they work the fields in the morning and after school. The three Diaz brothers, the core of the cross country team, help their father harvest cabbages.

When Señor Diaz says they can no longer run on the team, White joins the boys in the cabbage field to get a taste of the back-breaking work. We can feel his pain and thirst as he hunches over the rows of produce. 

After a memorable enchilada dinner at the Diaz home, the  father relents and lets the boys continue running with the team as long as the practice schedule is tailored to accommodate their work duties.

The Whites grow more fond of their Latino neighbors, who throw a quinceañera for their older daughter, Jamie (Elsie Fisher), as she turns 15. And Jamie has taken an interest in one of the boys on the cross-country team, though that leads to a scene involving some neighborhood violence that seems a bit ginned up to add drama to the story. 

(The actors playing the cross country team members seem a bit older than high school age, so it's a little unsettling to watch 15-year-old Jamie's interactions with her love interest.)

When it comes to competition, the team of poor Latino students inevitably gets some disrespect from the wealthier suburban teams they run against. But the McFarland students gel as a team, and the poor school in the valley qualifies for that first state cross-country meet. Here's an extended scene from the movie:


 

I won't reveal how the state tournament turns out, but I will say this. There is probably a reason there haven't been a lot of inspiring movies about team running events. While the race to the finish line can be thrilling, the audience must wait for the tabulation and re-checking of scores by a panel of middle-age judges in corny blazers, and the suspenseful writing of the results on a chalkboard.

There is more than one payoff in this movie. For the cross country state meet results, you'll have to wait for the chalkboard. But after that, we see the actors running with the real people they portrayed, and we learn at least a little bit about what those McFarland High School graduates have done with their lives.

They're still in the race.

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