McFarland, USA (2015)

The feel-good sports film is a genre Kevin Costner has always had a good handle on, from his baseball films in the late-80s and Tin Cup (1996), a much underrated golf comedy. He’s done some others about baseball again, boxing and American football more recently, but I didn’t catch those. However, this Disney film about an against-the-odds cross-country running team in late-80s California is his latest venture, and most pleasing it is too. Whale Rider director Niki Caro has been drafted in, and crafts a solid story of some young underprivileged Latin American kids in a poor Southern Californian town who are helped towards unlikely sporting glory by their high school coach Jim White (played by Costner, and affectionately called ‘blanco’ by the kids). White spots their potential as they run to and from the fields where they spend hours before and after school in the back-breaking labour of picking crops, and the film incidentally gives a good sense of some of that hidden labour that underlies our modern food systems, not to mention the rather less-hidden dimension of class and race-based tension that is palpable when the team start to meet their wealthier competition. The (white) White family are ostensibly at the story’s heart, but the film gives plenty of time to the seven kids on the running team and their extended families, particularly the star runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts), so as to avoid some of the crasser dimensions of movies condescending to the yokels/poor/racialised Other. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of genre clichés, but they’re handled as subtly as they can be, without distracting from the team achievement at the film’s core. And of course, Costner once again proves dependable in the lead.

McFarland, USA film posterCREDITS
Director Niki Caro; Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson; Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015.

Fast Girls (2011)

In 2012, London hosted the Olympics, an event which was both a source of considerable local pride (as it turned out, though many of us, including myself, had been rather sceptical in the years running up to it) and the occasion for this movie about a group of young women competing in the 4x100m relay athletics event. Of course, the word Olympics is nowhere mentioned in the script, and the “2011 World Championships” at which they compete were made up for the film — the IOC jealously guard their brand — but this film was unquestionably intended to tie in with the incipient mood of London 2012 fever.

To say the plot is formulaic would be an understatement, but that doesn’t diminish the enthusiasm with which the cast set about their work. If anything Fast Girls reminds me of recent dance-based films like StreetDance (2010): there is a final performance-based showdown towards which the protagonists work, clashing with each other along the way due to their different class backgrounds, but finally patching up their differences to — we hope — achieve ultimate success. In this case, the performance is competitive athletics and, having experienced and enjoyed the 2012 Olympics both in person and on TV, these setpieces are somewhat the most lacklustre element of the final film. The filmmakers cut between close-ups of the stars exerting themselves and long shots with stand-ins, and it never comes off quite as kinetically exciting as it should be.

Instead, the drama is really centred on the relationship between the two best runners: up-and-coming Shania (Lenora Crichlow), who lives uneasily and in poverty with her extended family on a council estate and is trained on a disused track by a local shopkeeper (Phil Davis), and rich white girl Lisa (Lily James), who does not want for opportunities or training but whose domineering dad (Rupert Graves) was a gold medallist and has the same demanding dreams for his daughter. It is Crichlow who largely carries the film, and her performance as Shania feels mostly unforced and natural, both when she’s interacting with the other residents of the council estate where she lives, and with Noel Clarke, the professional coach she is assigned when she wins her first big championships. The drama between her and Lisa is unfortunately rather more strained, and the resulting class tensions that play out between them feel overfamiliar. However, there are some nice observations about the desperate way they all need to seek sponsorship in order to keep running, and the bonding between the women in the relay team is conveyed with warmth, particularly in one nightclub scene where they are accosted by some aggressively over-confident men.

If it’s not in the end a film that deserves a gold medal, it is at least diverting and enjoyable while it’s playing out, clocking in at a clipped 90 minutes. It has a likeable young cast, and uses its London locations well (avoiding the touristy views that are all too common). For a film I watched very late on a sleepless hot summer’s night, there are worse ways to pass the time.

Fast Girls film posterCREDITS
Director Regan Hall; Writers Jay Basu, Noel Clarke and Roy Williams; Cinematographer John Lynch; Starring Lenora Crichlow, Lily James, Noel Clarke, Rupert Graves; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 14 July 2013.