Sunday, March 22, 2015

McFarland, USA

I'll start this post with a simple statement...McFarland, USA is a great movie! 

While the real story of the McFarland cross country team differs from the real story, quite a bit in a few spots, in fact, the movie is still good because it is a very well-done account of how a team from a migrant town in Central California became a cross country powerhouse that won nine state championships in 14 years and competed in meets around the world.

For more of the backstory, check out this Los Angeles Times piece from 1997.

Anyway, back to the screen. Jim White, played by Kevin Costner, and his family arrive in McFarland looking to get back on their feet after Jim wore out his welcome at another school. A football coach by trade, White had struggled with his temper and that led to confrontations with school administrators, other coaches and even players. Needing a job in time for school to start, White arrives in town as a science and PE teacher, as well as the assistant football coach.

What he didn't realize when he accepted the job was that McFarland was (and is) about 90 percent Hispanic, and most of them were migrant farm workers or other general laborers. Needless to say, blending in with the community would take some work.

When sticking up for a player leads to a falling-out with the head football coach, White is now a coach without a team, and a pretty bad PE teacher. His classes consist of calling roll and having kids run laps around the dirt track. What he finds is that several students in his class have a talent for running, and he approaches the principal with the idea of starting a team.

Approval for the team was easy, finding seven kids to run on the team proves a little more difficult. They go to their first meet and finish last. Discouraged, a couple of the kids want to quit and White has to talk one of them off a bridge (literally) after he has a disagreement with his father.

White discovers he knows very little how to relate to the kids. Most of them get up early and work the fields, then work them after school until practice. He joins them in the field one day and discovers how difficult their lives really are. This scene is where the team seems to accept him more, as well as the rest of the community.

Soon the team finds a bit of a rhythm, and some success. By the end of the season they are favored to advance to the first-ever California state meet, which they do as the last team out of the sectional. He rewards the kids with a detour trip to the ocean, which none of them had ever seen before. Some adversity follows (which I won't give away), but the team heads to the state meet with many of the community in tow.

As they really did in 1987 (when the movie is set), McFarland wins the state championship. The final two scenes of the movie are really cool...one shows the outside of the school with the state titles visible on the facade, and the last scene is the real Jim White following a group of runners on a bicycle. Although he was a wildly successful running coach, he wasn't much of a runner himself and usually followed the team on his bike. Also in the group run are the real seven runners from that state team. All of them at one point attended college, and all of them either live or work in McFarland or the surrounding area. One even runs the successful middle school running feeder program.


To me the star of the movie was cross country itself. As I spoke of my love of track in a previous post, cross country is something that is near and dear to my heart. It's as pure of sport as it gets, you are racing time as well as your opponents, and there are no breaks, no substitutions, and no timeouts. Once you toe the line, you are committing to go as hard as you can for the next three miles. It's a beautiful thing, and cross teaches so many things that you can take with you the rest of your life. And unlike many sports, which a kid might all but give up after high school, running is something you can always do and always compete in. The sport gave those boys things they never would've dreamed of, and opened doors to experiences that very few people get to have. That's special, and amazing.

While the movie is a bit on the long side at just over two hours, it's completely worth it. While I of course enjoyed the movie, my 14-year-old son Kevin did too, calling it the best movie he's ever seen. Now if that isn't a great endorsement, what is?

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