Feel-good underdog sports flicks like The Game Stands Tall and Coach Carter are practically a Hollywood cottage industry, but most especially so at Disney where they’ve recently cranked out The Rookie, Million Dollar Arm and Miracle. It’s great to be able to report that the Mouse House’s newest, McFarland, USA, is a solid, winning, and highly likable button-pusher.
Based pretty much on a true story and scripted by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, the movie features Kevin Costner as Jim White, a disgraced, hot-tempered, and recently fired football coach who, in the late ‘80s in a last ditch effort, relocates his wife (Maria Bello, lovely and underused) and family to an economically-strapped largely Latino community in California’s Central Valley. The local high school students must work the fields both before and after school. Meanwhile, a penitentiary sits across the street from the school. Could the narrow choices be grimmer or more narrow?
Although White — don’t worry, the name gets heaped with ridicule — gets hired as an assistant high school football coach and PE teacher, he spots some fleet-footed students and decides, despite their suspicion and hostility, to try and coach them into an all-Latino team of cross-country state champs. We all know how predictably everything in the film is going to play out, but New Zealand-born Niki Caro (Whale Hunter, North Country) directs sensitively and with an eye for social detail, racism, and injustice. The beautifully photographed film (credited to Adam Arkapaw and Terry Staceey) scores points, too, for not depicting White as a savior but as a deeply-flawed guy desperate for self-redemption as he aims to inspire his mouthy, lively, wised-up immigrant students (especially well-played by Carlos Pratts and Ramino Rodriguez).
Costner, whose name became synonymous with sports movies like Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, and Bull Durham, delivers the goods here – he’s easy, powerful, comfortable, both in his skin and in his skill set. He never overplays his hand. The actor has been popping up a lot recently in movies like Draft Day and Black or White, but this is his best recent work by a mile. McFarland, USA may not take us anywhere new but it gets us to the finish line with know-hot and an aim to please. Don’t even bother trying to be moved by the finale. ***
The road to hell — and misguided movies — is paved with good intentions. There’s no mistaking that director-writer Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger) has a personal tale to tell with Black or White (“inspired by true events,” the opening titles inform us) but he doesn’t tell it with any particular insight, edge, or subtlety. He’s tried to make a film about commitment, love, family, and questioning racially based stereotypes in contemporary America, but, like the PC-minded Crash, Black or White is schematic and detached from any sort of reality that it might as well be set on Venus.
In the soapy, sappy melodrama punctuated by a cringingly insistent Terence Blanchard music score, Kevin Costner plays a grieving, hard-drinking newly widowed lawyer left to raise his smart, searching biracial young granddaughter (Jillian Estell) on L.A.’s white, moneyed west side while, over in hardscrabble South Central Los Angeles, the child’s self-made successful businesswoman grandmother (Octavia Spencer) enlists the help of her successful lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie) in a family court custody throwdown for the child.
Costner and Spencer may be persuasive actors but the movie they’re in is so mush-headed on so many other counts that it’s tough to know where to start. Why does the child’s grandmother accuse Costner’s character of wanting the little girl “away from us — the black people”? How does the little girl feel about her estranged substance-abusing dad who comes back into her life in a big way? Why is Costner’s high functioning alcoholism played by laughs while the child’s father’s crack addiction is the stuff of melodrama? How differently is the biracial child treated by the residents of her granddad’s largely white Brentwood vs. her grandmother’s largely black South Central neighborhood? And why does the movie hammer so heavily and insistently on the white man’s dilemma?
Binder deserves credit for taking on some messy, highly charged issues that need to be part of the daily conversation in what is called, laughably, “post-racial” America. But, with Black or White, he’s made something so illogical, blatantly piled-on and Hallmark, that he undercuts the power of the tale he wants to tell. It isn’t enough that the movie’s heart and soul are in the right place. It needed edge and art to throw a punch. **