McFarland, USA (2015): A Worthy Winner

The reason I waited till now to see McFarland, USA is plainly because I thought it would be just another cliché movie on teacher inspiring students, and specifically here, a white teacher coming into a hispanic community, changing their youngsters to what they’re not, the white knight of condescension.

I’m glad that’s all a misconstrued perception. True, there’s a white teacher coming into the poorest town in the USA, McFarland, CA, where most of its population is hispanic, Mexican immigrants labouring in the open fields from morn till dusk picking produce. The hope of the parents’ – if there is any – is for their sons to continue picking produce so they can earn a living for themselves.

What’s best about this movie is that it’s a true story. The script is well-written and the production helmed by a competent director Niki Caro (North Country, 2005; Whale Rider, 2002). While its elements seem like the ingredients of a formulaic teacher changing students feel-good movie, it is surprisingly moving and exceeds my expectation.

Sure, the coach can’t be more white… a Mr. Jim White (Kevin Costner) from Idaho. You can’t find a whiter name. The school is McFarland High School, with low morales and expectations, students from blue-collar Mexican immigrant families. We see Mr. White come to McFarland after some unsuccessful employment at another school. Bringing his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) with him, White soon finds they are a misfit and maybe even unsafe in the town. Yet, he has no choice; this is his only job offer.

McFarland 1

Hired as a biology and gym teacher, White one day discovers some of his boys are fast long-distance runners. There are the Diaz boys, David (Rafael Martinez), Damacio (Michael Auguero), and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez, well, maybe not all of them fast) who are waken up by their mother every morning before dawn to go work in the fields before they head to school. Their only way to get to school on time from the field is by running fast. And then there’s Carlos Valles (Carlos Pratts), whose athletic talent is marred by family and personal conflicts.

White sees the potentials in these boys. With no experience whatsoever, he asks for permission to set up a seven-member cross country running team and train the boys for competition. Being the newest team, they have to compete against well-trained and formidable upper-middle-class schools from areas such as Palo Alto. Physical endurance comes much easier than when the McFarland boys have to deal with low self-image and discouragement.

Kevin Costner is the key to the success of the movie. I can’t think of any other actor who is more suitable for the role. Costner is a natural, even without the chance of him pitching a baseball, even having him ride a girl’s Barbie bike (White’s daughter’s apparently) to keep up with the boys in their practice, as he’s just a bit over-the-hill to run with them. A charmer and very convincing here, Costner shows genuine concern for the welfare of his students, even going to the fields to pick produce with them to make up for the time when he takes them out for practice. He soon wins the hearts of the parents and their community.

The movie captures my attention from the very start, any resistance is soon melted by Costner’s performance, and the natural appearance of the students and their families. Most of them are first time actors, and some are residents of McFarland. One soon finds that it’s not a white knight rescuing the underprivileged, but life-changing for them all. The movie sheds no traces of racism or condescension, but paints a realistic picture of family, community and the humanity that binds.

If you want to avoid spoilers here we have the historical facts in the following:

The triumph comes in the final act of the movie when the McFarland Cross Country Team The Cougars won the California States championship in 1987, and subsequently, a total of nine wins over the next fourteen years. And to his credit, White turned down an offer from a Palo Alto high school to stay where he was, at McFarland.

What is most moving is the final text shown on screen telling how the boys had turned out in real life. All of them have no family member who had gone past a grade 9 education, but all seven of them in the cross country team graduated from college. Some of them had gone back to teach at McFarland High School, one became a police detective, one a writer for the L.A. Times. We see their faces as adults, the fruits of everyone’s labour at McFarland.

The triumph of the movie is in its authenticity and uplifting ending. Uplifting because it’s a true story. Of course, the filmmakers have to tweak and add in dramatic elements to turn it into a watchable movie, but the basic facts remain intact. I can’t remember being so moved by a Disney movie. Kudos to the McFarland community for the inspiration.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


CLICK HERE to watch a featured video of the movie.

Here’s a “History vs. Hollywood” comparison.

Published by


If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

16 thoughts on “McFarland, USA (2015): A Worthy Winner”

    1. Kathy,

      Yes, the link at the end of my post “History vs. Hollywood” lists the facts and fiction. I must say the changes add to the dramatic effect (like, the beginning of the movie). Glad you’d enjoyed it too.


  1. Well, this sounds like something I would enjoy and find inspiring. Plus it’s track. I love track. I can’t run to save my soul but admire those who can. And being true. I always liked Costner in roles like that so I’m very glad to hear your thoughts.


    1. Jeanie,

      You’ll love this one. And Rick too, he being a long-distance cyclist. And Costner is the ideal sports movie actor… even if he’s not the star athlete anymore.


  2. I saw it right away and found it to be my favorite movie so far in 2015. I knew it can’t be bad because Costner is in it. I have never seen a bad movie with him in it, even though some were disasters according to critics. This guy made Dances With Wolves, which is probably the film that most accurately illustrates the Native American cultures. So I knew he would not be part of a film that insults the Hispanic culture.


    1. Bob,

      You’re right. I know Kevin Costner would not be disrespectful of other cultures, noting his flagship production Dances With Wolves. My delay in watching it at first was due to my misconception that it was just another teacher-winning-over-student kind of formulaic movie. But this one is most authentic and moving. Better late than never. 😉


  3. This is a great review – the film sounds really worthwhile. I like Costner and will see if it plays around here, and if not, get it later on to watch when I go to my daughter’s.


    1. VB,

      Yes, I think you’ll enjoy the cross-cultural relationships depicted in the movie. By now it would have gone to second runs. Do check it out.


    1. Stefanie,

      I know what you mean. But my hats off to the man who keeps coming back with different takes. In recent years, he may not have made another epic like Dances with Wolves, but there are some good works like Open Range, The Upside of Anger, and even the TV miniseries Hatfields and McCoys, in which he and his band had contributed to the theme music. Hope you’ll have a chance to see McFarland.


  4. I know Palo Alto — have spent some time there, as a matter of fact — but I’d never heard of McFarland or this film. I’m definitely going to look for it, and I’m going to commend you review to some folks who still live in or have connections to the area. They may be well aware of it, but if they’re not, they should be!

    Thanks for a great review, and for bringing this to our attention.


    1. Linda,

      Thanks for ‘sharing’ my post with others. I’ve appreciated the publicity. You know I’ve been avoiding FB for years, so I don’t get so much exposure as those who are really social. Hope you’ll have a chance to catch this movie. I remember your link with UC Berkeley too. Recently I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s essays (her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She was a UCB grad. during the late 50’s. I’m excited to learn that her essay “Goodbye to All That” had just sold its film rights (see next post). Yes, some filmmakers are trying to turn an essay into a full length movie. So, it’s possible that one day one of yours could be seen on the big screen too … 😉


    1. Charlotte,

      Yes, this is a moving film. It’s screening now in my city. So I suppose still on in your area too. Hope you’ll have the chance to see it too.


  5. Arti,

    My brother recommended this film to me, got a chance to watch it on a flight back from Asia – 👍👍👍👍. I was deeply moved, especially since was based on a true story. I wonder if I can still catch on the big screen. Love your review too.



    1. Yinling,

      Glad you’ve a chance to watch it on the in-flight ‘small screen’. You must see it in the theatre. Yes, it’s still screening here. So I suppose it should be still on in your city. Go for it!


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