Wednesday, March 04, 2015

"McFarland USA" Cultivating a New Kind of American Dream

After watching the trailer for “McFarland USA,” I wasn't in a hurry to see the film since it was so similar to, “Spare Parts,” a movie I had recently reviewed. Until… I discovered that it was directed by Niki Caro, who helmed one of my all-time favorite inspiring films, “Whale Rider.

I couldn't help wondering how a film so different in style and tone reflected Niki’s vision as a filmmaker. What was the common thread between “Whale Rider,” the re-imagining of a Maori legend about a teenage girl challenging the tribe’s patriarchal traditions and, “McFarland USA,” a seemingly formulaic sports flick about a coach encouraging a group of poor migrant Mexican-American farm workers to become champion runners? 

I settled into my theater seat and sighed as, “McFarland USA,” opened with a familiar plot device. The star football player defies the coach’s authority. Coach White loses it and hurls a cleat at the locker near the teen - only it bounces off and hits the teen in the face. The coach’s weakness is set up very economically to prepare for the inevitable character arc (growth). When the coach and his family drive into the poverty-stricken Mexican-American farming town of McFarland, it is clear that this is his last chance. As his daughter looks out of the window, she thinks they got off at the wrong exit: “Are we in Mexico?” I caught myself rolling my eyes when the Idaho family becomes unhinged by the idea of eating the foreign Mexican food. (Really? Lol. This is America!)

Director Niki Caro 
At school, a fellow teacher tries to recruit Coach White (Kevin Costner) for a community project by delivering the obligatory speech about how these poor farming kids are invisible and live in a state of constant hopelessness (reminiscent of the “they are invisible” speech in, “Spare Parts.”) That hopelessness is symbolized by the prison across the street from the school. I wondered to myself, is there really a prison there or was that yet another contrived plot device?

Around the time the coach first notices a student dashing home, a miracle happens. We are introduced into the world of the migrant farm workers. Immersed in their culture, home life, and community, we (like the coach) start really caring about these kids.

While researching for this review, I read that director Niki Caro had been looking for a project with the same qualities as, “Whale Rider,” when Disney approached her about, “McFarland.” In an interview with Bryan Abrams she recalled, “Here was a story that was true, based in a real community, based on real people, and it offered me a way I could work as I had on,” Whale Rider,” which is to work with the community and with the people. Basically, all I do is light up what I think is beautiful.”

The part that interests this New Zealand-born director is working with communities unlike her own. “The way I work when it’s not my own culture is I try to be very accurate and faithful to the way lives are lived and not impose my will. I was very keen to portray the Mexican-American culture, but I realized that we made a very American movie, a profoundly American movie that happens to have a lot of Mexicans in it.”

The migrant workers in McFarland epitomize the American Dream in their struggle to make a better life for their children. But they create their own version by balancing work, family and community. The opening set-up pays off as Coach White and his kin grow as a family and become a part of the community. The coach joins three of his runners for dinner to explain the advantage of running. But he ends up learning from them. Their mother gives him some enchiladas to take home and a lesson on being a family man. “How are you going to be a family if you don’t eat together?” She points out how her husband works hard for long hours, but is present every night at dinner with his family. Family is a priority.
The original McFarland track team with Kevin Costner 
The team learns something too. As coach and team gain a mutual respect, they also learn to respect themselves. Using the incredible strength it takes to work long hours in the fields, go to school, and then run 8-10 miles a day, they can accomplish anything. Inspired by their determination and heart, we root for them to win while we, in turn, learn the value of hard work.

It is clear in both, "Whale Rider," and, "McFarland USA," that Niki Caro's vision is cultivating community. By casting light on the customs and traditions of each community and its people, Niki cultivates a rich, fertile film experience that grows understanding.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Watch, the complete movie, "Whale Rider." 

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