The question at hand isn’t whether or not Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA is formulaic. For all underdog sports team movies, from Hoosiers (1986) to Remember the Titans (2000), from The Bad News Bears (1976) to The Mighty Ducks (1992), uses it. Instead, the question is whether or not the film is chained to the formula or merely uses it as a springboard for new ideas. If there is some kind of imaginary cliché checklist for these kinds of movies, McFarland, USA seems to tick every item off.
In 1987, a Fish-Out-of-Water Coach named Jim White moves his family to the eponymous McFarland, California, a Desperately Poor Community populated almost entirely by Latino day-laborers. Noticing the Hidden Potential of several of his students, he starts a cross-country team with seven of the school’s best runners. Among them is a Prodigal Teammate whose Father Doesn’t Want Him To Compete, a Hot-Headed Showoff who would much rather flirt with girls than compete, and, of course, a Fat Kid. Though initially resentful of White, the tantalizing Possibility of College Scholarships and a Chance to Get Out of Their Town convinces the athletes to stick with the program. After Losing Their First Match against an Arrogant Team of Racist Snobs, White transforms them into a force to be reckoned with via Unusual Training Methods, in this case using covered hills of harvested almonds to simulate mountainous cross-country terrain. After an Unpredictable Third Act Setback, White and his team rally together for the Big Championship. This is all, most importantly of course, Based on a True Story.
So you probably know how McFarland, USA ends. But what may surprise you is how the film manages to transcend these clichés to create something that, while not particularly revolutionary, is original and innovative enough to warrant a watch even for veterans of the genre. It does this in two ways. First, the film has a beautifully defined sense of Place and Location. McFarland, California isn’t some generic blue-collar community in a nondescript part of the rural countryside. The heat and dust of the desert fields is palpable; the desolation of the countryside is oppressive; the sun’s rays bleach the color out of everything; there is almost always, always, always a chicken or stray dog running around. You could probably move the story of Coach Carter (2005) or Remember the Titans from one state to another without effecting their overall quality. But McFarland, USA could only have taken place in McFarland.
The other method that McFarland, USA sets itself apart is in the “Unpredictable Third Act Setback”. I won’t go into what happens, but in other films of its ilk, this usually takes the form of an unexpected death or critical maiming of one of the team members. But in this film, it is Coach White who experiences the Setback. Again, without giving much away, this act redirects the focus of the film. The community of McFarland stops being a dead-end location that the athletes (and by extension the coach) must struggle to escape. Instead, it becomes a battleground for the athletes to prove the strength and fortitude that already exists within the community. In a flash this subverts the White Savior narrative and venerates Latino culture as strong and vibrant instead of as a source of adversity.