McFarland, USA

By: Yehudit Mam

McFarland, USA is so inspiring and so heartwarming, that if it weren’t based in a true story it would feel like a liberal wet dream. Disney has sprinkled its fairy dust on the real story of a group of Mexican high school students from McFarland, California, circa 1980s, who pick fruit, nuts and vegetables in the fields, and when they finish by 8 a.m., go to school.

Enter their white savior, named —you can’t make this up— Mr. Jim White (Kevin Costner), a renegade football coach from Iowa who can’t get a job anywhere else. He is hired as the coach and P.E teacher of the local high school and realizes that instead of getting injured playing football, these Mexican kids should run, because boy, can they run.

The first sign of trouble with the movie comes when the Whites, just arrived in a town so Mexican that the younger daughter asks whether they have unwittingly crossed the border, go looking for something to eat. There are no familiar fast food chains, just an authentic (read: awful looking) taco place. Being from Iowa, they don’t know what a taco, tostada or quesadilla is. This is the 80’s when Mexican food had not yet been “discovered” by the gringos. So Mrs. White (the always welcome Maria Bello) orders tacos, clearly the only thing that sounds vaguely familiar to her. Instead of showing that their perception about their new hometown was about to improve a thousandfold thanks to this splendid meal, director Niki Caro cuts to the Whites leaving the restaurant, as a bunch of low riders scare the hell out of them by showing up in their souped-up cars.

Mexican food is pushed up to later in the film for a simple reason: had the Whites been shown eating it, their conversion into Mexican-loving gringos would have taken all of two seconds. But the audience needs to follow the arc of this family, from Wonder bread Americans to honorary Mexican homies. They hate McFarland, they fear McFarland, they don’t get McFarland… but eventually they are going to feel at home in it, because, doggone it and —this is the moral of the movie— this is America too.

Although this movie threatens to drown the audience in syrup, it does something quite remarkable. It shows the American public where the food we eat comes from, who picks it and how. Being a Disney family film, it is currently showing in malls across the land. In fact, it grossed a respectable 11 million dollars in its opening weekend, and it’s currently the number three movie in America, which is quite remarkable for a Latino themed film, as they barely exist.

McFarland, USA will give heart attacks to those who love to nag about illegal immigrants and how they abuse the system. But the movie manages to shine a light into the conveniently invisible lives of many brown Americans, particularly the children of immigrant parents who do backbreaking work, as minors, legally. In one scene, Mr. White goes picking cabbages with his students to try to understand why it is so difficult for them and their parents to commit to his cross-country running team. He quickly collapses from exhaustion. Thanks to this movie, the staggering hypocrisy of the politicians who treat these workers like common criminals while they look the other way and allow children as young as 11 to work, may finally dawn on the mall people of America.

McFarland, USA is an exuberantly well-intentioned ode to hardworking Mexican immigrants, to family and to human decency. It tries, not entirely successfully, to balance its realism (teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, poverty, hopelessness), with the corniest, most manipulative plot turns, which include a mariachi band version of the Star Spangled Banner. But even as I cringed at every heavy handed heaping of corn, the essence of this story of triumph over adversity had me crying like a banshee. You'd have to have a heart of stone or be a card-carrying Tea Partier not to.

It is fashionable to decry and be offended by movies about minorities that are all about the white savior in their midst. This movie is one of those, but to its credit, it gives individuation, if a bit clichéd, and plenty of screen time to an extended Mexican cast. It also gives Mr. White some ugly little prejudices (not enough, in my view, but algo es algo), so that he doesn’t look like he’s Abraham Lincoln’s second coming. A very solid, understated Kevin Costner wipes any trace of a star turn or sentimentality from his performance. It is truly moving how Mr. White gets to realize how hard his students have it, and how strong and remarkable they are for it.

If only the rest of the country would catch up.

LOGISTICS: McFarland USA, now in theaters

Yehudit Mam has been in love with movies since her mom took her to see Krakatoa, East of Java when she was a little girl. She is a film blogger, a creative director in advertising, and cofounder of