Past the Popcorn: Disney Gets “Team” Right in McFarland, USA


by Jeff Walls

Disney has been successful with their inspirational sports dramas since 2000’s Remember the Titans, releasing one just about every year.  They all feature good acting, well crafted stories, and happy endings.  They are always based on a true story and all pretty much follow the same formula.  As such, few of the individual movies stand out from any of the others to the public at large.  If one of those movies happens to touch members of its audience on some kind of personal level, however, it can accelerate that particular film out of the pack and turn it into a champion.  That is how it was for this writer with the latest Disney sports drama, McFarland, USA.

The story follows Jim White, a high school football coach who is forced to take an assistant coaching job in a small town for reasons that I will not give away here.  Things do not go very well in his first week and he is dismissed from his coaching duties after a disagreement with the head coach.  The school needs a life science and physical education teacher, though, so they keep him on.  While coaching P.E., he starts to notice that some of his students are very good runners.  Not only can they race a lap around the track with ease, but many of them work as pickers in the local fields and run all the way in from the fields every morning and back every afternoon.  Intrigued, Coach White decides that the school needs a cross country running team.

mcfarland-insetWith the help of one of his more eager students, White manages to put together a team of seven runners, the minimum number of required runners per team.  They fail at their first competitive meet and that causes some friction amongst the team.  Additionally, some of the parents in this small rural community are concerned that the time their boys spend training is time they are not spending working in the fields.  They fear it may take food off the table.  White manages to convince them, though, that he has their sons’ best interests at heart and the team quickly starts to improve.  Soon, they find themselves in the running for the State Championship and their success unites the entire community.

I ran cross country in high school and so this movie affected me on a very personal level.  Anyone who has ever participated on a sports team at any level knows that, if done right, a sense of camaraderie develops and you start to feel like your teammates are family.  I’ve experienced this personally and can tell you that McFarland, USA perfectly captured that feeling between its main characters.  This sense of camaraderie was certainly present in other Disney sports movies like Remember the Titans and Miracle and I’m sure that football and hockey players felt that on a personal level.  For me personally, though, McFarland, USA is the movie that truly captures the essence of the team united through competition.

It also perfectly captures the feeling of the cross country meet, from the large group of anxious runners amassed at the starting line at the state meet to the more intimate battles at the dual meets.  Every moment of each race felt authentic.  This is a credit not only to the actors, but also to the director, cinematographer, editor, and art director.

The other element of McFarland, USA that won me over was the sense of community pride and togetherness that can be inspired by a local sports team’s success.  This movie may take place in a small community, but living in the Seattle area, I can assure you that a sports team’s success can affect larger communities just as powerfully.

Cross country is a grueling sport that takes not only incredible endurance and speed, but determination, guts, and heart.  That certainly comes across in the movie and we see these kids start to believe in themselves as the movie progresses.  Coach White, played by sports movie icon Kevin Costner, delivers one of those inspirational “you are tougher than the rest” speeches at the end, but instead of feeling clichéd, it feels authentic.  This is in large part thanks to a scene in the middle of the film when Coach White spends a day working in the fields with three of his runners.  By doing so, both he and the audience gets a brief peek into just what these boys do on a daily basis, and have been doing since they were ten years old. We have seen that they are tougher than your average high school student and we know that Coach White truly speaks from the heart during that final speech.

McFarland, USA would have been enjoyable had it been a fictional drama, but the fact that this is based on a real story featuring real people makes it all the more so.  Sure, there were dramatic licenses taken with some of the facts, as there always will be, but the spirit of the true story is not forgotten.  This is evident right through the movie’s finish line, when we are introduced to the real people behind the story and given a quick glance into their lives beyond their competitive running days.

Disney has succeeded before with major sports like football, baseball, and hockey, but it is refreshing to see them apply that same effort and level of quality to an equally inspiring story from one of the world’s less publicized sports.  Hopefully, McFarland, USA inspires a whole new generation of future runners just as it has this former competitor.

McFarland, USA opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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