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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

McFarland, USA
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Kevin Costner turns in a restrained yet compelling performance as the central figure in the fact-based sports drama McFarland, USA (Disney).

As for the story unfolding around him, faith- and family-friendly values — together with the absence of any genuinely problematic elements for parents — make director Niki Caro’s uplifting tale one that can be enthusiastically recommended for moviegoers of almost all ages.

Costner plays Jim White, a high school science teacher and coach in 1980s California whose sharp temper places him on a downward career spiral. Jim, wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) seem to have hit rock bottom when the best job he can find forces them to relocate to the impoverished, predominantly Latino fieldworkers’ community of the title.

As the Whites — whose name now takes on an ironic significance — struggle to adjust to McFarland’s Hispanic culture, Jim recognizes a widespread gift among his new students for long-distance running. Toughened by backbreaking agricultural work and constrained to cover extensive distances on foot, lads like Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) glide swiftly across the landscape without giving their speed a second thought.

Jim decides to draw on this pool of latent talent by organizing a cross-country team. Since this genre of racing is considered an elite sport for country club-types, Jim and his charges will have to compete against the privileged athletes who attend the Sunshine State’s private academies. But Jim is convinced that, with the requisite effort, his hearty proteges can prevail.

Caro’s saga of youthful underdogs pitted against the odds honours Jim and Cheryl’s strong marriage, along with the bonds uniting the other close-knit clans it portrays. The script also highlights the value of education and self-improvement.

Though religion mostly hovers in the background, a spontaneous and intense prayer of thanksgiving marks one of the movie’s emotional high-water marks.

The film contains an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a single mild oath, a couple of crass terms and occasional ethnic slurs. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — In Hollywood’s worldview, high school is a battleground where teenagers, divided into cliques, fight for supremacy, a la 2004’s Mean Girls.

In that spirit meet The DUFF (Lionsgate), a derivative comedy based on a demeaning premise: that certain students are branded the Designated Ugly Fat Friend.

A DUFF, as explained in the eponymous novel by Kody Keplinger, serves two purposes for the cooler, prettier girls in school: Her unfortunate appearance highlights the beauty of her so-called friends, and she also provides an approachable gateway for guys seeking a date with her one of her chums.

DUFFs may be self-aware or not. In the case of down-to-earth Bianca (Mae Whitman), she’s devastated to learn the truth of the label put on her by her duo of gal pals, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos).

A sympathetic teacher, Mr. Arthur (Ken Jeong), offers Bianca advice on turning the other cheek, as he himself was a DUFF many years ago. (DUFFS, it seems, span the sexes.)

But hell hath no fury like a teen girl scorned, and Bianca sets out to erase her designation and take down the meanest girl in her high school, the queen of the labelers, Madison (Bella Thorne).

Bianca enlists the help of her neighbour, Wesley (Robbie Amell), who just happens to be Madison’s ex-boyfriend. Captain of the football team and the most popular guy in school, Wesley asks, in exchange, for Bianca’s assistance in passing chemistry.

And so Wesley becomes Henry Higgins to Bianca’s Eliza Doolittle, and the ugly duckling is transformed into a swan, of sorts. Bianca hopes to score a date with her crush, guitar-playing Toby (Nick Eversman), but finds she also has eyes for Wesley.

This infuriates Madison. Determined to win Wesley back, she becomes a cyberbully, posting vicious videos of Bianca on the Internet.

The strife rages on, and director Ari Sandel juggles a surfeit of screeching and a torrent of tears. Unfortunately, along with lax underlying values, vulgar sex talk and expletives abound, obscuring some positive messages for young people about self-esteem and respecting the dignity of others.

The film contains a benign view of non-marital sex, frequent sexual images and references, underage drinking and occasional profane and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops