By Roberto Leal
In 1956, when I was 9-years old, my Dad inexplicably moved us from our comfortable, cozy house in San Jose to a strawberry farm in Watsonville. He built a one-room addition onto a humble three-bedroom, one bathroom shack that his sister, my beloved Tia Alicia, shared with her husband, Tio Antonio and their eight girls. My aunt and uncle were Mexican-American farm workers tasked with picking strawberries. My cousins also worked in the fields and went to school. I worked in the strawberry fields picking berries exactly one half of an afternoon.
As Mark Twain once observed: “I could never see any benefit in being tired.” One short, afternoon of picking strawberries was all I could endure. I’ve since taken Mr. Twain’s observation to heart and avoided any endeavors that require getting tired and sweaty.
Working in the fields and picking any crop is hard work! This transplanted city boy was not cut out for it.
However, I came to admire and respect the Mexican-Americans (like my Tia Alicia and her family) as well as the Mexican nationals who were working under the Bracero Program at that time, for their strength, endurance and humility as they toiled long hours in the hot Sun.
McFarland USA is an inspiring sports drama about a Mexican-American cross-country team from McFarland, a rural community in California. Based on a true story, the movie stars Kevin Costner as the team’s coach, who’s determined to turn a group of his students/farm workers into a team that’s good enough to compete in the state’s first cross-country championship. The stuff that American dreams are made of.
Director Niki Caro’s (Whale Rider, North Country) cinematic realization of writer Christopher Cleveland’s story of a down trodden track coach in an impoverished, rural town in the Central Valley of California, evoked warm, pastoral memories and images of my brief life on that strawberry farm in Watsonville.
Costner plays Jim White, a high school football coach who has a hard time holding down a permanent position anywhere. He’s tough, difficult to deal with and often comes dangerously close to being verbally and physically abusive with his players—like most coaches tend to be.
Costner and his family find themselves in the rundown Mexican-American farming community of McFarland. The town and people initially look totally foreign to Costner and his family.
“Are we in Mexico?” asks his daughter.
Costner is hired as a P.E. Instructor, Assistant Football Coach and Life Science teacher at McFarland High School. As the assistant football coach, Costner doesn’t waste any time running afoul of the head football coach and finds him exclusively assigned as the P.E. Instructor.
In less capable hands, this could have devolved into a typical “fish out of water” story and had a happy ending slapped on the end of it. However, Caro’s direction skillfully takes us into a touching and inspiring story of transformation, redemption and ultimate triumph over adversity.
Costner’s impressive but understated performance is a crucial element in this story. In so many of his previous roles, i.e., Robin Hood, Wyatt Earp, Jim Garrison, Dances with Wolves, Waterworld and The Mailman, Costner’s characters seemed almost too larger than life, grandiose, and self-congratulatory.
At his core and at his best, Kevin Costner is one of Hollywood’s greatest “every man” actors. Like Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper before him, Costner’s persona perfectly exemplifies those good old-fashioned American virtues of decency and fair play.
He successfully displayed those qualities in such films as Field of Dreams and The Untouchables. Even in the aforementioned films, his characters always had an undercurrent of an “ordinary” guy in “extraordinary” situations.
But in his more recent roles like Denny, the boozy, former baseball player doing a radio talk show in The Upside of Anger and now in McFarland USA, the once squeaky clean, All-American hero has aged, become a bit world-weary and worn out around the edges.
It’s these qualities combined with his essential decency that bring much more depth and texture to Costner’s work now.
Maria Bello, as Costner’s wife, delivers another in a long string of solid performances that stretch back to her TV work on ER and Prime Suspect to such diverse roles in films like A History of Violence and The Jane Austen Book Club. There’s never a false note in any of Bello’s performances.
The supporting cast gives well-drawn, strong performances as well. Carlos Pratts shines as the troubled and conflicted Thomas Valles, the star of McFarland’s cross-country team.
It should be noted that most of the teens in McFarland USA are appearing in their very first feature film. Also noteworthy performances by two veterans; Diana Maria Riva as the take charge mother Señora Diaz and a personal shout out to my long-time friend Danny Mora as storekeeper Sammy Rosaldo. Other outstanding performances to Omar Levya, who plays Sr. Diaz and Valente Rodriguez who as Principal Camillo had the compassionate heart to allow his new coach to create a track team. Then there is Ramiro Rodriguez, the team’s “gordito” who ends up being the strongest link when it counted.
Johnny Ortiz, who plays Jose Cardenas, could be the breakout star of this film. Ortiz is co-starring in the much-anticipated ABC drama American Crime.
The long road to redemption and transformation begins as Costner notices that the boys in his P.E. class all show remarkable running abilities. It’s an ability born out of necessity, as the boys frequently have to run from school to the fields where they help their families harvest the crops.
Costner convinces the school principal that he can build a competitive cross-country track team.
At this point in the film, some might cynically say to themselves or anyone else within earshot: Ah yes, Stand and Deliver meets Chariots of Fire. But McFarland USA avoids that easy synopsis by bringing out the complexities and humanity of this rural Mexican-American community as it comes together to embrace Costner’s family and their cross-country track team.
In the climatic scene just before the big state cross country track meet, Costner gives his team a stirring, inspirational speech. It’s not unlike those he has delivered in “JFK” and other films. But this one comes from a different place; a different shared experience with the boys and the community of McFarland.
In this current political climate where both Republicans and Democrats are courting the growing Hispanic population, McFarland USA is a poignant reminder that America is a nation made up of many different cultures living in vibrant, close-knit neighborhoods that can’t easily be judged merely by their outside architecture or because they are not located in shady, tree-lined boulevards in the suburbs.
The film is aptly titled McFarland USA because the Hispanic community is rapidly becoming the face of America.
I live in San Antonio, Texas, where the population is approximately 60 percent Latino—Mexican-American (including me), Mexican and others. When I lived in McAllen, Texas near the Tex-Mex border, the percentage was 90 percent and the first language of choice was Spanish. To answer Costner’s daughter’s question at the beginning of the film:
“Yes, it was like living in Mexico.”
And I loved it….
McFarland USA, like the McFarland cross-country track team, prevails because it also has a big heart.
Director: Niki Caro
Producers: Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray, Mario Iscovic, Mary Martin
Writers: Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Grant Thompson
Cast: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramirez Diaz, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Danny Mora, Valente Rodriguez, Diana Maria Riva, Omar Leyva, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Vanessa Martinez, Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher
Musicians in Film: Mariachi Sol de Mexico
Soundtrack: Juanes | Music by: Antonio Pinto
Roberto Leal is a freelance writer based out of San Antonio, Texas. He has published a memoir, a collection of satirical political blogs, a short story and essays on Kindle/Amazon. Leal is a native of California born in San Jose, where he went to school with veteran actor and TV writer, Danny Mora.