Granger on Movies: 'McFarland, USA'

Fairfield Citizen film critic Susan Granger reviews the new movie, "McFarland, USA:"

Based on a real-life story, Disney's newest inspirational sports film follows a high school cross-country team in a small, impoverished, primarily Mexican-American town and the coach who changes their lives -- and his own.

Back in 1987, when hot-tempered Jim White (Kevin Costner) threw a cleat, accidentally injuring a disrespectful football player in the locker room, he was fired from his job in Boise, Idaho. Embittered and disgraced, he knows he's hit the bottom-of-the-barrel when he accepts a position teaching science and physical education in McFarland, Calif.

Along with his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters, teenage Julie (Morgan Saylor) and preteen Jamie (Elsie Fisher), White reluctantly relocates to this agricultural community. He's a fish-out-of-water, until he realizes how fast and athletic the kids are, given their daily dose of manual labor.

Despite initial skepticism from Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez), White finds state funding to form the school's first cross-country team, which includes gifted Thomas (Carlos Pratts) and overweight Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez).

"We have kids here who seem like they can run forever," White observes. "They carbo-load on rice and beans ... they pick in extreme heat ... they go to school all day ... and some of them even run home. I've seen it, and it's unbelievable."

Realizing that athletes need proper training, White devises his own methodology, including exercising them uphill on huge mounds of almond hulls covered with tarps. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the squad achieves remarkable success, qualifying for the state championship.

Working from a traditional, cliche-filled screenplay by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, New Zealand-born director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider," "North Country") perceptively elevates the familiar sports drama, establishing a strong emotional core, amplified by compelling performances.

And with "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams," "Tin Cup," "For the Love of the Game" and "Draft Day" to his credit, no one can top now-60-year-old Kevin Costner as the proverbial Everyman in the jock genre.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "McFarland, USA" is a scrappy, stirring 7, a feel-good, underdog story.

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