McFarland, USA – Movie Review



A couple of months ago, I was running with Laurel and she mentioned this great movie she had watched called McFarland, USA. At the time, I thought, “Oh, I’ll have to watch that” but then I forgot about it. It came back on my radar a couple of weeks ago, and I decided on a Saturday night (after running the Summerfast 10k) to put it on.

The Plot

I will try to avoid spoilers, although the fact that this is a Disney movie might hint at how it will turn out. McFarland, USA (2105) is based on a true story.

Jim White (played by Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who, due to some over-aggressive discipline, gets let go and sent to the tiny town of McFarland, in central California. The town’s residents are primarily Mexican immigrants and their families, working as pickers in the fields. Cabbages, based on one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, as well as almonds and avocados.

It seems clear that Mr White is not going to get along with the incumbent football coach, but he discovers that some of his students are remarkable runners. They run from the fields to school every morning. They are runners by nature.

Expectedly, with a few challenges along the way, White coaches seven of the boys, and has them competing in local and then State running meets.

The impact on the boys’ lives is poignantly summarized in a poem, which the English teacher shares with White:

We fly like blackbirds through the orange groves
Floating on a warm wind.
When we run we own the earth, the land is ours.
We speak the birds language.

Not immigrants no more, not stupid Mexicans.
When we run our spirits fly, we speak to the gods.
When we run, we are the gods.

And at that moment, White becomes a member of the community: “Welcome to McFarland.”

One of the key themes of the movie is cultural discord, evidenced by White’s (intentional?) mispronunciation of Latin names, and the students alternately calling him blanco, hefe, and the like. Of course, once they earn each other’s trust, White becomes “Coach”.

Another subplot is the family’s struggle integrating into the community, and the budding romance between White’s daughter and one of the runners.

[Tweet “”Happiness and success can be found in unexpected places” – a review of McFarland, USA”]


From a story-telling point of view, I found the movie a bit disjointed, like pieces had been cut out to shorten the running time (which would make sense, if they’re targeting a younger, attention-span-challenged market…and pardon the pun).

A couple of spots in the movie stood out to me:

  • White’s ejection from his job, and his ‘history’ are touched on only very briefly. Was he a real jerk? Did he actually get fired? We jump from a locker room outburst to the family’s arrival in McFarland with no clear transition. Obviously, the point is to get the story started, but the lack of backstory left me wanting more.
  • The big ‘drama’ scene, which occurs after the daughter’s quinceañera party, alludes to gang violence in the town. But it has no substance. It happens, and then it’s over – and never mentioned again. We know McFarland is a poor, rough town – but the whole feels a bit forced.

Cinematically, some of the cuts from scene to scene are a bit jarring – they just don’t flow well. Someone didn’t do their editing job very well.

In terms of story, some of it seems rather contrived. The ease with which White’s wife integrates into the community and makes friends…it seems effortless. That she feels ‘more at home here than anywhere else‘ isn’t entirely convincing.

But these weaknesses aside, it’s a very enjoyable movie. The obstacles overcome and the success of the cross country team – these are truly inspiring. I’ll admit that a few tears were shed in our household while we were watching.


A Feel-Good Movie

As a runner, I was motivated by McFarland to take a look at my own training, and my own motivations for running. I couldn’t really identify with the kids – natural athletes battling difficult circumstances – since I’m a former non-athlete just trying to become a better runner. But the message is the same – that hard work and having someone who believes in you can make all the difference. And that happiness and success can be found in unexpected places.

During the final credits, we get to see the real people behind the story, with little snippets of how their lives have turned out. White still lives in McFarland – and People magazine has a nice little story about him.


I give McFarland, USA 3.5 out of 5 stars, mostly because the acting was pretty decent and I enjoyed watching it. Good story for kids, and definitely a worthwhile watch for the runners out there!

Have you watched McFarland, USA? What did you think? 
If you haven’t seen it yet – would you add it to your watch list?



One comment

  1. Lucy

    Started watching this on the plane to Aruba. Download it to finish watching it when I was back from my trip. It was entertaining, and thought it was spirit-lifting in a Disney sorta way. See you soon!

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