So, it’s a PG rated Disney movie where Kevin Costner is a football coach that ends up, through bad decisions on his part, stuck in the tiny town of McFarland, California, teaching at a school made up entirely of Mexican kids. Then he decides to start a running team, despite having never coached it before, solely based on how quickly the kids run home from school. And, let me tell you, this movie is actually really, really good. Costner is just a huge asset here; it’s the first lead role I’ve seen him play since his little comeback a couple of years ago and he’s just still such a pro. He knows instinctively, I think, when moments in the script could come off as cheesy or contrived and he plays all of those moments very minimally when lesser actors would go over the top; and he’s right – the more subdued he plays the inspirational speeches or the proud triumph of victory, the harder it genuinely hits home. And this film dodges most of the bullets of this kind of culture clash film; the thrust of the story is of Costner’s character and his family being brought into the Hispanic culture of McFarland. I’d compare this to Million Dollar Arm, another PG rated culture clash/sports Disney movie, which was about a couple of Indian players attempting to compete in major league baseball. The humor in Million Dollar Arm was all about mocking the Indian characters for not understanding modern American/Western culture and it felt very condescending. This movie, on the other hand, is about the white character as the fish out of water and the humor, which is often quite funny, is always at his expense, not the expense of the Hispanic characters. The film has a smarter script than most; there are a lot of great moments, like one where Costner, on his first night in McFarland, encounters a young Hispanic guy on the late night streets and is genuinely terrified of him; later, we see how this encounter both angered and hurt that particular character because Costner’s assumption of the kid being a dangerous gangbanger was so blatantly racist. And I have to admit that I found the film genuinely uplifting without being cheesy; again, sharp contrast to Million Dollar Arm. I was as skeptical about this movie after seeing the trailer as you probably are after reading this review; McFarland has no real shot at being anything but another cheesy, sanitized, inspirational Disney movie. But it’s actually amazingly good; talk about an underdog story. Very good. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – Disney culture-clash comedy/inspirational sports story manages to dodge almost every bullet to become genuinely inspirational and interesting, thanks to good performances and a smart script. 3 ½ stars.