It’s not very often that cross country makes its way on to the silver screen. This is why I made a point of catching a screening of the Disney movie McFarland USA which opened in theaters yesterday. As a former competitor myself I thought it’d be good to share some thoughts and reactions I had and leave the door open for others to contribute.
To start things off I am going to say that this is indeed an amazing story of triumph. McFarland, a Mexican-American farming town of approximately 7000 in southern California, allocated its resources and rallied around their high school’s cross country program that defied all odds winning the CIF small school state meet in 1987. This began a long standing tradition of success for McFarland but while the movie is based on a true story it will irritate the competitive runner.
It’s important for viewers with the distance running mindset to understand that this is a movie about race relations in rural California that happens to involve a cross country program. Not the other way around. What I mean by this is other than an extremely passive capture of what the sport involves it is not a true cross country movie. It is not a passion fueled chase for Olympic glory that Hollywood has given distance runners in the recent and distant pasts.
Instead we see the story from the point-of-view of Coach Jim White, a displaced football coach who is fired from a suburban school district after some questionable locker room behavior involving an athlete who needed disciplining. He ends up taking a position at McFarland high school because he doesn’t have any other options and is essentially only hired due to the fact that the school faces similar constraints. Training and competition are only minimally shown throughout the flick.
Cross country coaches and athletes will be outraged by the Disney touch packed full of cliches and corny humor. Without getting into Coach White’s use of kitchen timers as stopwatches and odometers as gauges for passer-by running speed we should discuss the unrealistic timelines and events. Starting with the school administration allowing for a cross country team to even exist, Kevin Costner walks into the McFarland athletic director’s office, slaps down a packet of information about the “first” CIF state meet and requests the opportunity to start the program. Moments later, after just some brief questioning he is given the opportunity. This is where coaching blood will begin to boil because athletic programs – big and small, rich and poor – would need a lot more justification (and revenue) to open their doors to a new varsity sport. Typically something like this would involve a district approval and a more timely protocol. Next, every cross country coach has to sell their sport and program at one time or another to convince athletes to join and they must do so within a set of restricted guidelines. It is plainly very unrealistic how this process was portrayed in the movie McFarland. For example, one cannot coerce students into joining their sport after saving them from an in-school reprimand (detention, suspension, etc.). It is just not realistic. Another example is barely qualifying out of their section for the state meet and then suddenly winning the thing. That takes at least a year to do, not a few weeks. In the climax of the movie, an overweight boy passes a lot of his physically more fit competition in the final stages of the state race. An experienced competitive runner will not buy into this and be somewhat disappointed.
Everybody who has succeeded in the sport of cross country will fume at the gross injustices in the movie. In some cases these gross injustices will diminish their own achievement(s). One of the biggest misses I observed was the inaccurate portrayal of cross country as an after school activity opposed to a grueling varsity sport. Success at the state level in cross country requires a very dedicated lifestyle. In the movie there’s a lot of athletic “duct taping” going on which leaves the wrong, Mickey Mouse “you can do it” fist pumping impression to the non-runner. Another huge miss is that even though the hardworking, blue-collared farm culture in McFarland without a doubt primes its teenagers to be tough runners, unless you’re German Fernandez you’re not going to run 16:30 for 5000 meters after never racing before in your life. The story of miraculously “winning state” comes too easy in the movie and is a disservice to the other small school runners in California. Just because you have seven runners doesn’t mean you can realistically compete.
This is a tough love story though. There are stereotypes and generalizations that follow the Mexican-American race; the gang subculture, the low-income situations, hard working families of pickers, etc. But from the cross country point of view it leaves a distaste in your mouth. Running fast in one of the power states – on top of talent – takes a lot of hard work. The Disney movie fails to capture this very dedication that is required to win and simply plays it off that anything – even miracles – can happen. Cross country is not a sport where you can generally outrun your fit competition when you’re noticeably overweight. Unfortunately, there are no miracles in cross country as you cannot overcome a lacking fitness level simply believing in yourself. Not possible.
Contrary to all the negatives I took away from this movie, the one thing I really respected was the closing “where are they now” montage which indicates that many of the members of the 1987 state championship team are back in McFarland and are active role models to the youth.