McFarland

Director: Niki Caro (2015)

Spanish students face an uphill climb in this aspirational high school sports drama.

It’s set in the world of competitive cross country running. Free from surprises, it’s a leisurely jog along the route to self-improvement.

When PE teacher Jim White is sacked for misconduct, the only job he can get is in the down market California town of McFarland.

It’s an hispanic area and his beautiful blonde family struggle with the language, food and local hoodlums.

Keen to move on, up and out of the school and the neighbourhood, he seizes upon an opportunity for funding for a cross country team as a means of resurrecting his career.

Jim sees potential in the seven pupils he recruits to form a team, but they must run up real and metaphorical mountains in pursuit of success.

Kevin Costner is well cast as the coach, the film capitalises on his decent demeanour, gruff charm and physical presence to good effect.

Sadly the talented Maria Bello hasn’t much to do as Jim’s wife, though she fares better than the youngest daughter who serves no purpose whatsoever.

The film is careful to treat Spanish culture with respect, placing an emphasis on the importance of family, food and hard work.

It’s a struggle to give the individual boys’ screen time or fully develop their characters but they’re an agreeable, engaging group. Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles is given the closest to a genuine character arc.

Jim’s charges’ have to skip school and training runs to work in the fields. Though the script hints at domestic violence and gang culture, it shies away from showing it.

They race against teams of all-white privileged posh boys. Qualifying for the state championships offers the boys the chance of a university place, away from a future of fruit picking or prison.

As the team show signs of success, Jim faces a fork in the road between loyalty to his team or his career.

A nicely realised postscript saves this film from descending into a simple white saviour flick such as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Dangerous Minds (1995).

McFarland is competently crafted and nicely acted. Though the pace slows in the uphills of sentiment, it has sufficient reserves to provide a satisfying finale.