Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Kevinography, part 16: McFarland, USA (2015)

This is part 16 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.

Synopsis: Mr. White (Kevin Costner) is a football teacher who gets angry quickly and cycles through jobs quickly. Now he hits the end of the line in southern California immigrant community McFarland, where he's hired as teacher and assistant coach. He quickly gets into another fight that leads to his dismissal from the football team, but he discovers something else: the Mexican-American kids that make up the school are damn good runners. So he trains them for cross-country running - and they train him in becoming a member of the community. When the team qualifies for the statewide competition, the stakes get a lot higher...

Do you remember "Dangerous Minds"? Most likely, you don't, but it's very likely you know the rap song "Gangstas Paradise", that made that rotten movie a lot more popular than it has any right to be, including a parody by Weird Al himself. The story is tried and tested: white teacher comes into ethnic community, teaches the kid some upper-class thing, learns stuff about the underbelly of America and themselves, and the kids excel after overcoming some hurdles, reaffirming the American Dream.

The story is attractive, and for a smattering of reasons. But it's also very dangerous, in that it falls into the White Savior trope quickly, which is problematic, to say the least. The times where it was played utterly straight as in "Dangerous Minds" are over, and so one feels a bit of apprehension as Disney is not only dipping its toe in these waters but is jumping in with both feet.

Luckily, it works out, overall. It's certainly putting it on heavily with the cream, presenting us an incredibly corny and harmless version of a, let's say, peripheral Mexican-American community in 1987, but the relationship is treated with enough respect and goes both ways enough that it is acceptable. It might be a bit much when Costner goes picking in the fields with his kids to learn how their everyday life is, but if you're doing sugary, it's more about the right recipe than the sweetness of the product.

And this is Disney we're talking about here. They are masters of this craft. They are hitting the notes of all the good vibes and feelings and introduce just enough danger and conflict to tie the many, many good-feeling scenes together. This means that the background gets grinded down quite a bit - there is criticism of the economic conditions these people live in, yes, and the school-to-prison-pipeline gets established, but in the end, this is a kid's movie, and so everything is rather subdued.

On the other hand, this leaves to an almost ridiculous level of integration into the community on the side of the White family, where they're basically accepted into the family within days of their arrival. And all the Mexican-Americans in the neighborhood are just one family. Everyone's good-natured, just wants the best. Again, it works within the movie, but it's corny as hell.

Costner acts as the conservative dad, which is basically his natural state. Whether as a cowboy or a rural high school coach, he has the role down to a t. Protective of his daugthers, earnestly working, gruff, with just the right amount of bias to overcome. Costner is bringing all the charme so sorely missing from his faux earnest movies, like "The Highwaymen" or "Man of Steel" that dragged these movies down.

It also helps that the movie is set in 1987, which basically sets in in fantasyland, and helps avoid a lot of the pitfalls that would need to be adressed if it was set in any contemporary period. Immigration laws, the whole fight, ICE, it all plays no role. And that's for the better.

One elephant in the room needs to be adressed, though. The movie is inspirational, yes. In the epilogue, we see the successful careers of the runners and how McFarland continued to excel in sports. However, it can't be overlooked that the issues - economic oppression, racial segregation, little chances in live - for the majority of Mexican-Americans have not changed a lot since 1987. These uplifting stories always ever touch a very small, very lucky minority.

Verdict: If you want some harmless entertaintment with the kids teaching them the value of hard work by a Costner bringing his a-game, this is good for you. If you're the least sensitive for the issues of immigration today, best stay away.


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