I never get enough of seeing running related movies or reading running related books. I’ve seen about a dozen of movies that are about marathons or track. Some of them really capture the essence of running, training or competition, while others pile non-running themes onto the story and loses focus. For example, I enjoyed Without Limits and Run for Your Life, because they kept the story simple and focused. I’m not going to talk about ones I did not enjoy as much. Anyway, I really looked forward to seeing this new movie “McFarland, USA” from Disney, because it is a movie about high school cross country. None of the running related movies I’ve seen was about cross country.
Good running movies are hard to come by, especially as a feature film. Movies like 4 Minute Mile or Without Limits need actors (or stunts) who can actually run fast; otherwise, the movie will lack quality we expect: The quality of running form and speed. No special visual or sound effects can make actors look reasonably fast with a running form that produces speed. When the story lacks these qualities, the movie will lose connections with audience. Unless the story is strong enough to carry lack of actions and emotions, that is. Actors in McFarland, USA are not professional or elite runners, and it shows. However, the cultural, social and human aspects of the movie make up for the absence of great running, and I was able to enjoy the movie.
Community, camaraderie, family and friendship are some of the keywords that signify this movie, based on a true story. McFarland is a small and isolated California farming community with tight-knit Mexican families, where kids were not encouraged to get good education but to provide physical labor. Jim White, an accidental cross country coach, forms a team by slowing engaging with and integrating himself and his own family into the predominantly Mexican community. Once he earns trust from his students, he encourages them to get better education after high school, in a hope to help their parents and the stagnant community. During the epilogue of the movie, we learn that he, now a mentor to many students, succeeded in creating a high school cross country dynasty and in revitalizing the community. I was very happy to see the running, training and competition, was the center piece of all these positive changes in this movie and the community.
Kids learn from running. Running can empower them, remove fears and install confidence. As one of the students writes for his English class, “When we run, we own the earth… when we run, we are gods.” My interpretation of “gods” in this context is not of religious meaning. They felt free and empowered when they ran: They were not immigrants and they were not “pickers” when they ran. That is a beautiful feeling and grants them lasting confidence. One of the advantages McFarland runners had over other schools was the camaraderie and togetherness that they grew up with and that are ingrained in them. A cross country team performs better when runners develop strong bonds and everyone is a team player, especially when they have only seven runners on the team. They train together and watch out for each other.
Last but not the least, Coach Jim White’s contribution to the team, school and the community is nothing short of a dedication. Though the movie has certain exaggerations, he gave his students and the community hope and meaning through coaching. He is a true educator that would be an American dream for many students and communities. All in all, the movie combines each ingredient very nicely and elevates spirits of the audience. I was able to enjoy high school cross country at its best.[schema type=”movie” url=”http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2097298/” name=”McFarland, USA” director=”Niki Caro” actor_1=”Kevin Costner”]