by Renato Manganello 2/25/2015
Genre: Sports Drama
Box Office: $43M (USA)
McFarland, USA is a feel good, inspiring story and it is likely to generate some criticism for being the umpteenth film about a white guy productively intervening in the lives of underprivileged minority youth — a charge that has less to do with the facts of Jim White’s genuinely inspiring legacy than with the particular dramatic emphasis that Caro has given them here.
Predictable and predictably rousing, this fifth feature from director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “North Country”) never sheds its outsider perspective, ultimately emerging a well-intentioned mix of compassion and condescension. What’s really at stake throughout this movie is how Jim White and his family feel about it all: their discomfort at being forced to relocate to a low-income Hispanic neighborhood, followed by their gradual realization that, hey, these folks aren’t so bad after all, with their quinceaneras and low-riding Chevys and free-range chickens.
As most Latino stories, family is always front and center. We also see how sturdy and close-knit most of these families are, and how lovingly they protect their own and help each other out — something from which Jim, a somewhat neglectful father of late, inevitably winds up learning a valuable lesson.
It is a film where Latinos are the heroes. These kinds of stories in years past would have been cast with Anglo kids. It’s a rarity when Latinos get to play the heroes in big budget films (can we all say Argo with Ben Affleck playing Tony Mendez?). Sure, the film needed a Kevin Costner to add the star power, but Disney made it happen.
Disney is hoping they have found the formula to big budget “hero films” about Latinos for the general market. It is rare for a studio to feature a largely Latino ensemble. They have taken a lot of steps to ensure they do it right. From the casting, lead by Sheila Jaffe, who early on reached out to ensure she saw every Latino possible for the roles – over forty Latinos were cast, some of which make their screen debut with speaking roles – to the music, enlisting the talents of mega international superstar Juanes to do the theme song, to hiring UCLA professor and Latino Theater Company director Jose Luis Valenzuela as a consulting on the film, Disney gets high marks for wanting to get it right.