McFarland, USA – A Runner’s Review

Clearly I am not a movie reviewer. I’m just a guy who loves running, is a sucker for the underdog, and love to be inspired. As for McFarland, USA, in short, I loved it. Yes, it was predictable, and yes it was about Kevin Costner, but setting that aside, I really enjoyed the film. I wanted to see this film for the obvious reasons I’ve already mentioned, but I also wanted to see it because I have been bothered by the fake story about Hollister, CA. Unless you have been living under a rock, I like you, for the past ten years or more have seen hipsters and kids all over the country proudly wearing their Hollister hoodies and t-shirts, espousing the surf culture of that California beachside community. But like the restaurant chain, Noah’s NY Bagels, there is no such thing. Hollister is inland and landlocked. It is an agricultural community not that unlike McFarland, CA about three hours south, or its own neighbor Salinas, CA, the lettuce capital of the United States. There isn’t even a Hollister clothing store in Hollister, CA, but why let facts get in the way of a great story? So you can see why I was curious to see how Disney would portray McFarland, an agricultural town with a population somewhere around 13,000.
McFarland to Hollister
In reality, they did a great job. What I was most impressed with is that three of the seven runners in the film were actually from McFarland, giving them a chance to participate in the story of their own town and helping them to launch their own acting careers in a town that I would guess doesn’t have that many casting opportunities.
The running scenes were good but not amazing, the storyline was solid and the acting by novice and veterans alike was terrific and not overacted. It held my attention, entertained and inspired me for the entire length of the film.
All that said, there was one little thing that I couldn’t get past and the problem was that I kept seeing it in almost every scene. Carlos Pratts, who plays the character and fastest of the McFarland runners, Thomas Valles, is a thick, and I mean thick muscle bound athlete that looks nothing like a long distance runner.
McFarland to beach
Pratts’ character Valles is seen above, running at the front of the group amongst other thinner and more realistic running characters, except for character Danny Diez, who is purposefully overweight.
But here’s the real issue, Pratts’ character is timed by Coach White (Costner) early in the film, running through a farm while he commutes with a backpack on at a blistering 5:30 min/mile pace. Now anyone who runs, knows how hard it is to run with a backpack on, let alone run that fast. I mean, check out this guys arms and thighs in the photos above or below. There is no way that this guy is running that fast and winning the overall state championship against the legs and lungs of other more svelte runners – unless he’s running the 100 meter dash. If McFarland, USA was about wrestling or power lifting, Pratts would have been a great casting choice, but as an elite distance runner, he just didn’t physically fit the character’s needs and this oversight annoyed me greatly.
Pratts Valles
Here is what the real Thomas Valles looked like in 1987 when they won their first trophy:
McFarland Real Valles
McFarland Real Valles Trophy
Look at the size of Valles’ hips alone? Pratts’ thighs are larger. At a minimum, Pratts should have dieted down to portray Valles’ character more accurately. Yes Valles was ripped but he was lean and ripped, not yoked. Pratts is just thick, too thick for any of his running scenes to have been accurate or believable.  I will have to turn to my good friend Sandi to let me know how that type of a casting decision might have been made. Sylvester Stallone at 5’8″ and 159 lbs was more believable as heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Balboa. It would have been the equivalent to having Steve Prefontaine portrayed by actor Sean Astin (Rudy and Samwise Gamgee) in Without Limits. It just wouldn’t have worked, no matter how great the actor is.
But that’s it. And interesting for me, I read a number of reviews and comments in running blogs and online magazines and nobody else seemed to have picked up on this.
Now, what also intrigued me was the real story about the McFarland, CA cross country team and how that story was portrayed in the movie. And like so many stories, the truth is more impressive than even the film. In December of 1997, The Los Angeles Times published this article on McFarland after they won their 6th straight state title. I invite you to read it. It only made me feel more connected to the characters I had been introduced to in the film.
In short, I highly recommend the film, in the theaters or by watching it during your taper week before your next race. You’ll be better for having seen it.
Below are some other links worth checking out, after you see the film. Enjoy!


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