Can Kevin Costner Strike Sports Gold Again?

Director: NIKI CARO/2015

If you are Disney and you are wanting to strike box office gold in February, one of the worst months for cinema, then you need a winning formula.  You will need to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible.  And since your name is Disney, this should definitely be a family affair.  A film based on a true story works great because it will create a stronger connection to the story elements, even if some of the details have been embellished for dramatic effect, and it will help add to the inspiration factor at the end of the film (Stick around through the credits to actually see the real people who inspired this film).

And if you choose a sports theme for this film, then there is one man who is a “go-to” lead actor for all things sports.  Every sports film he has done has mostly had big success.  Whether we are talking about baseball films such as Bull DurhamField of Dreams, or For Love of the Game, or golf films likeTin Cup, or even last year’s poorly received football film Draft Day, he is the only actor you need get.  This is especially true when it comes to playing men who are at a low point in their life just waiting for the right moment to find redemption. That man is of course Kevin Costner, and this new film for Disney is called McFarland, USA.

In McFarland, USA, Kevin Costner plays Coach Jim White.  He is a coach that had a championship football program in the Midwest but had grown tired of a losing team whose heart wasn’t in the game, and players whose ego was bigger than the team they played on.  After throwing an object at a locker during half time which ricocheted and hit one of his players, Coach White was sent packing with a big black mark on his record which would cost him his ability to land at another school with any notoriety.  His family takes the subsequent move in stride until they arrive at the only school that will take them in McFarland, California. Here he is to serve as a teacher and an assistant football coach.

The population of the school is mostly Hispanic youth whose families often work long, grueling hours as “pickers” working out in the fields picking fruits and vegetables.  We learn that many of them have no other aspirations for themselves than resigning themselves to the inevitable fate of being a “picker” themselves.  Family comes first, even at the expense of education, and especially in light of some pie-in-the-sky fantasy of succeeding at impractical dreams based on sports and the like. Having seen many of these kids simply running to work in the fields after school and timing them running laps in his blow-off P.E. course, Coach White gets the idea to start a cross-country team when California announces it will hold the first ever state-wide championship competition.

Much of the film is a fish out water story.  For Costner, his Coach White is more than just a coincidental name of a white man standing out for being surrounded by a minority culture.  It is meant to demonstrate the American Dream where the white man (here it is literally Coach White) is seeking to rise above his circumstances as much as the stereotypical minority students most films try to “save”. Examples of such “white hope” salvation films include Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds.  Fortunately, McFarland, USA is able to level the field (running pun) a bit and demonstrate that the “American dream” as an ideal (i.e. success, accomplishing your dream, redemption) is not just exclusive to the white majority, or even Americans per se,  but is something that every soul longs for. And the minority culture in this film is just as responsible for Coach White’s redemption opportunity as he is for theirs.

Following Costner’s other 2015 movie Black or White, where he takes on race relations between black and white cultures, here Disney allows him to address the emerging Hispanic demographic and the race relations that have been fueling recent hot button political issues such as immigration reform.  Other notable films of the last year or two that are broadening this burgeoning Hispanic market, and using film to inspire all groups of people at the same time, include this year’s film Spare Parts, and last year’s Pulling StringsGirl in Progress, and Instructions Not Included.

This film is formula down the line from the hard-nosed coach who really cares, to the coach who neglects his family in pursuit of his own redemption.  Such themes emerged in Disney’s box-office hit Remember the Titans, for example.  And one needs only watch the trailer for McFarland, USA to know what kind of ending this film might have for this young team of unlikely runners.

Yet, despite these typical narratives, this film largely succeeds because it understands the idea of community better than many other films with similar themes. The us vs. them motif involving race relations is quickly stamped out as Coach White and his wife (Maria Bello) and their two daughters (Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher) are embraced by the community as they don’t live out of town like the other “white teachers” but truly try to become a part of the community they live in.  They befriend the local grocery store owner, and the neighbors and even begin to adopt the meaningful customs of the people they live among, throwing a touching quienceanera celebration for their oldest daughter’s 15thbirthday.

The team itself acts as a sort of community with its own give and take and struggles in the face of the stark reality of pursuing the prize of the sport at the expense of helping to work as a picker and provide for their family.  The team, along with the townsfolk are played with solid performances from Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, and Michael Aguero, and others. Even the temptation of Coach White to use this stop in McFarland as a way to get his foot in the door to a more lucrative school is dealt with as a community.

By adding USA to the title instead of California, Disney is really crafting this story as an American dream story that could take place in Anytown, USA.  Even though the demographics are very specific in the story, this narrative allows for this bit of “Anytown, USA” marketing to actually resonate in the story and to accomplish its purpose of inspiring all who watch it, regardless of their racial, economic, social, or nationality backgrounds.

Kevin Costner can add this to his resume of inspirational sports films, but like this year’s Black or White, it seems he is also building a resume of films that will inspire conversations between groups that have long had tension, and in so doing, helping us to have a national conversation that will hopefully inspire us to come together as a larger community.  It’s not so bad when all that can take place in under 2 hours and make you want to clap at the same time, even if it is wrapped up in a typical Disney formulaic tale.