Because of my admiration of New Zealand director Niki Caro, I found myself in the 10 a.m. showing this morning for McFarland USA. Caro previously directed Whale Rider and North Country which produced Oscar nominated performances. Caro’s work here doesn’t change her status as a director to watch.
Based on a true story, McFarland USA (horrible title) addresses the success of a high school cross country track team in a small agricultural community in California where the sons of Latino farm workers compete under a coach with serious anger issues. The story is not unlike the bio pic Stand and Deliver where high school teacher Jaime Escalante achieved success with urban Latino youth in AP Calculus.
Caro’s camera doesn’t explore the harsh realities of a picker’s life. One brief sequence in the fields gives a hint at the pain of farm work and may educate the ignorant of how California grown produce gets to their tables. Her camera doesn’t shy away from showing the reality of Coach White’s anger. When he throws a cleat at the head of a mouthy high school football team captain, the camera closes in on the deep cut in the boy’s face. It’s the mix of emotions in the boy’s eyes, however, that lingers. As in her previous films, Caro intends the viewer to see the people in a specific environment. She succeeds again.
Despite actors old enough to have parented teenagers instead of playing them, I was engrossed in the performances. Caro has cast a talented ensemble of terrific actors and allowed them to create indelible characters that rise above stereotype to be seen as individuals. This is a film that makes the case of why casting agents should be recognized by the academy. Terrific work in identifying a group of gifted actors who are able to create a community that feels authentic. Each performance here feels based in truth.
Based on Caro’s past successes, it is not a surprise that the actresses are standouts here. Diana Maria Riva comes from two decades of television work to be the comic relief as a mother of three athletes on the team. Yet, her portrayal is rich with emotion and grit as a demanding mother who loves her children. Maria Bello is given little to do as the wife of the troubled coach and yet her performance is rich with nuance as a woman who loves a flawed man.
Unlike Stand and Deliver which was nominated for Best Actor and swept the Independent Film Awards in 1989, McFarland USA will not be an awards magnet for 2015. Yet, I will continue to watch out for the work of Niki Caro. She is a gifted director.
I’m planning to see this next week. I’m glad you felt warmly about it, because I was reserving my anticipation for it. It seems like the kind of film that tries hard to make you feel something, and it hope that it works as you say it does.
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