Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Movie Review: "McFarland, USA"

I was eagerly anticipating the movie McFarland, USA for months. As a high school cross-country coach, I was particularly interested in how this terrific sport would be portrayed in the film. As a Disney movie, you would probably expect that the emotion of the particular true-life situation would be well-covered, but who knows if they would get the running part right.

Overall, I think they did an excellent job. One thing I had to remind myself was that the story was from events in 1987, when I was not involved with high school running at all. My only year of high school cross country was in 1978, and I started coaching in 2010. Then again, people will see how the sport is portrayed and assume that the vibe is the same.

Here's what I saw that they got right:

Running cross country is hard. There are hills, rough trails, tough competition, and other challenges, so it takes a lot of hard work to succeed. The film showed the runners training very hard, and suffering in the races. The characters in the story succeeded partly because they already knew how to work hard, so all of that made sense.

They really do have a prison almost right next to the high school. I thought this might be an embellishment to make the story more dramatic, but a quick visit to McFarland via Google Earth confirms that the prison - with barbed-wire topped fences and all - is literally about a block away. I imagine that they probably do indeed run past the prison on some training runs.

They actually might use a pedestrian overcrossing of Highway 99 as a "hill." In the movie, McFarland hosts a meet, and the course traverses the freeway using a pedestrian overcrossing - the one hill on the otherwise flat terrain. Sure enough, there is one of these right near the school. If I were laying out a course for a cross country race in the neighborhoods near the school, I would likely use this feature. In fact, the "hills" we have the kids train on where I coach in Alameda, CA are bridges that link the main island with the peninsula part of the city, which rise a whopping 10 feet at most.

The portrayal of the Latino families as being friendly and family- and communty-oriented people is 100% consistent with what I know of this community. My dad spent his tween and teen years in the Central Valley as a migrant farm worker and had many friends whose families originally came from Mexico. His stories of these families is just like in the movie. Also, the families in the film were not recent immigrants, which I also understand is consistent with reality. This, of course, led to some funny moments when Kevin Costner's character didn't know that some of the people spoke English as well as he did.

But what did they get "wrong," if anything?

For one thing, they show one of McFarland's chief rivals as Palo Alto High School. This just isn't true, as Paly High is about 4-5 hours from McFarland - there's no way they would have been a frequent rival. I don't see any scenario that they'd be facing one another in a meet of the size they showed in the movie (maybe in a huge invitational or in the State Meet). I guess they needed to have a school with wealthy families, and people have heard Palo Alto fits that bill, but they could just as easily have made up a "rich" school for McFarland to run against.

The borderline trash-talking between the runners is something I have never seen. The runners I see either ignore the others (because they're busy talking with their own teammates) or happily chat with them. Actual current high school runners routinely congratulate each other without being prompted to do so.

Same with the coaches making snide remarks to the Kevin Costner character - none of the dozens of coaches I know would even think of doing that. In fact, one of the reasons I enjoy coaching high school cross country is that the coaching community is so friendly. It's quite common for experienced coaches to volunteer training advice to newer coaches so they can help their kids more.

The 1987 State Meet was held at the site where they currently hold it, Woodward Park in Fresno. It would have been pretty cool to actually film the movie there - I guess it was probably more expensive than just finding a park near Hollywood.

The film made it look like McFarland was the top team in the state in 1987. I don't know the exact times they ran, but they were actually the top team in the small school division that year. Typically (although not always), schools from the larger school divisions are stronger than those from the smaller ones.

One other thing was that the film made it appear that McFarland only had a boys team, but over the years, they have not only had girls teams, but actually had several girls teams that finished in the top 10 in the state. Cross country meets always have both boys and girls present (they don't compete at separate venues, like in, say, basketball), so it looked a little weird to me to see only boys running around.

Overall, though, this is a film that every cross country runner or potential future cross country runner should see. The cast is outstanding, especially some of the minor characters like the school principal (Valente Rodriguez) and SeƱora Diaz (Diana Maria Riva). Kevin Costner (as Coach Jim White) does a good job at not screwing up the movie - I'm not always a fan of his, but I think he does quite well in this role. The food shown in the movie... well, let's just say I left the theater drooling. I will definitely be buying the DVD when it comes out so I can share this movie with all of the high schoolers I coach in the future.


  1. Thank you for your post. My family and I are watching this movie right now.

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