SBIFF: Fleet of foot: SBIFF’s Closing Night film ‘McFarland, USA’ is a true story of overcoming odds

Director Niki Caro on the set of "McFarland, USA"
Director Niki Caro on the set of “McFarland, USA”

Tomorrow will be the last day of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and the closing night film is set to inspire and warm hearts in a story set in the San Joaquin Valley. Kevin Costner and director Niki Caro will be in attendance.

“McFarland, USA” tells the true story of coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who accepts a job at a high school in McFarland, a tiny farming community, mostly Latino, and not only creates their first cross-country running team, but then takes them to Nationals.

The film is both an uplifting sports film designed to bring maximum feelgoodness to a wide audience (it opens nationwide Feb. 20) and a chance to explore the economic underclass of California, where kids work in the fields alongside their parents and then go to high school later in the day. Theirs is a poor future that will either lead to work or prison (the high school rooms look across at the latter).

Director Niki Caro
Director Niki Caro

Director Niki Caro has always been attracted to these subjects. The New Zealander came to prominence with 2002’s “Whale Rider,” about a Maori girl who battles tradition to become the leader of her tribe. Her follow-up, “North Country” (2005), told the true story of Lois Jenson, whose case changed sexual harassment laws. And while “A Heavenly Vintage” was more of a fantasy film, her protagonist was a peasant winemaker. So Ms. Caro has a thing for the underdog. But that last film was in 2009 — what has she been doing in the meantime?

“I seem to work in three- to five-year spaces,” she says. “It took a long time to write and cast this one.”

Disney presented the project to her many years ago, and she was happy to find a film that could be comparable to “Whale Rider.” Ms. Caro favors shooting on location whenever possible and drawing her talent from non-actors.

“It’s incredibly satisfying to work inside real environments with real people,” she says. “It’s the opposite of what moviemaking often is. This real story had so many elements that I think are important to talk about. The perseverance of these kids, their plight and faith and strength and stamina .\u2009.\u2009. all these things are important to me.”

Apart from Mr. Costner, whose star power will help sell the film, the seven young men who make up McFarland’s cross-country team come from similar communities, and her team spent months auditioning teens in Texas, San Diego and Bakersfield.

Three of the runners were cast from McFarland itself and only one — Carlos Pratts, who has some heavy emotional scenes — came from an acting background. But by the end, they were seasoned actors.

And athletes, as the production got them up every morning to run and train, and then Ms. Caro would rehearse them in the afternoon.

“By the time we got to set they were well prepared and all of them were ducks to water from day one. I look at their work, and I’m so proud of them.”

One actor, Sergio Avelar, was not only a runner but had gone on to Nationals and lost, so Ms. Caro says the film was a bit of a redemption for him. And Rafael Martinez, who plays the stocky David Diaz, plays soccer and is a bull-like powerhouse, despite the character’s slow arc to fitness.

Mr. Costner “showed up as an actor, not a movie star,” Ms. Caro says, and was very generous to the young actors. “You see him on screen as the man he is. It was very moving to see how fatherly he was to them .\u2009.\u2009. I think a lot of this film is uncharted territory for Costner.”

On top of this, the film shows a California that isn’t just coastal tourist cities like our own, but one that is a majority of our state’s land.

Ms. Caro worked with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective,” “Top of the Lake”) to get these beautiful shots of the San Joaquin Valley, bringing a romance to towns many of us only see from Interstate 5.

“I wanted to make a very beautiful, cinematic experience out of this story, but equally it had to be totally real,” she says. Fortunately, Niki Caro has achieved both and sends SBIFF out on a high note.

Closing Night Film — “McFarland, USA”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St.
Cost: $20
Information: 963-0023,

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