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Movie Review — McFarland USA #running #moviereviews

running-advice-bugIt isn’t very often that a good movie about running comes along. McFarland USA is indeed a movie about running and it’s a very good all around movie too. I think you runners will enjoy it.

Disney's McFarland USA

Disney’s McFarland USA

McFarland is the underdog story of underdog stories, as a newly formed team of high school cross-country runners from an impoverished farming community face pretentious rivals in the first-ever California State Cross-country meet. Set in 1987 in the rural town of McFarland, California, we go along for a ride with a bunch of young runners that are long on natural talent and work ethic, even while they are not taken seriously by their rivals. The story is about forming a team, working hard and winning against all odds.

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As with all sports movies, there’s more to McFarland than running. In truth, this story is maybe half about running. The other half of the movie is a story about cultural integration, family dynamics and understanding. This story is where we build our relationship with both the running coach and his students and that’s where this film really shines. McFarland is a picture with a lot of heart and its from that heart that we develop a deep affection for the runners and really pull for them as they try to win. We care about the team by the end of the film, because we care about the characters and really want them to succeed. This is the level on which McFarland succeeds as a movie as well.

McFarland features a somewhat typical fish-out-of-water premise to begin with: a teacher and coach moving to a small, rural town in which he and his family are pretty close to the only non-Hispanic residents. He’s blessed, in true “couldn’t have been written better if it were fiction” style with the last name “White” which quickly gets him the nickname “Blanco.” While the first act of the movie unfolds a little slowly, it’s nice to see that the outsider is not riding in on a white horse of infallibility. Quite the contrary, he’s the bud of many jokes and makes some big mistakes early on. This really is a story of learning that works both ways. By the end of the second act, this movie is hitting on all cylinders and we are invested and pulling for the team.

The running scenes are captured effectively if somewhat simply from a stylist stand-point. The film feels vintage, even though it was set in 1987. From the look and feel of the film, you might think that the film was set in the late-70s instead. The camera work is often somewhat claustrophobic feeling with shots feeling a touch too tightly cropped. Some of the races “look” too long (in terms of distance) as well, meaning that visually the runners seem to be strung out along mountaintops and roads stretching for miles when the races are only 5K in length. But these issues are minor and would go unnoticed by most viewers. It was really pleasing to see the cinematographers putting a strong effort into capturing the finishes of the big race, one point in the film that the camera work feels elevated to another level.

One of the stories that really shines is that of the slowest member of the team, named Danny Diaz. Cross-country running is a team sport with only the first five runners scored, so he insightfully asks at the first meet, “so why am I here coach?” Through the course of the movie we learn why he is there and in a truism that holds for life in general, we learn that everyone matters. If you don’t find yourself cheering for Danny Diaz by the end of the film, I would be very surprised.

There’s a lot to like here for runners. Our sport is showcased in an entertaining way and you’ll get a feel-good movie to go with it. That’s a great blend and one that both runners and their family members will like. The next big running picture will likely be a movie version of Christopher McDougall’s great book Born to Run, but no release date has been set for that one. For now enjoy McFarland!

Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon USA
Running Advice and News
www.running-advice.com

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