The stirring true story of how a scrappy Latino high-school running team beat the odds is treated as a Kevin Costner vehicle first and foremost in “McFarland, USA,” a cross-cultural cross-country drama that feels descended from a long line of minority-underdog movies like “The Blind Side,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Pride” and the Oscar-winning documentary “Undefeated.” Predictable and predictably rousing, this inspirational sports pic earns points for its big-hearted portrait of life in an impoverished California farming town, the likes of which we too rarely see on American screens. But with its overriding emphasis on how Coach Costner fits into that world, this fifth feature from director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “North Country”) never sheds its outsider perspective, ultimately emerging a well-intentioned mix of compassion and condescension. Even if the family-friendly Disney release commands a more diverse audience than most, it remains to be seen how much long-term box-office endurance it can muster.
More than a decade after hanging up his baseball glove in “For Love of the Game,” Costner has settled nicely into his role as a sort of elder statesman of sports movies, having played an NFL general manager in last year’s “Draft Day” and now a high-school football coach named Jim White. It’s the fall of 1987, and Jim, having been recently fired from his job in Boise, Idaho, after getting a bit too rough with one of his players, has just accepted a lowly post teaching science and P.E. in the central Californian town of McFarland. And so, along with his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters, teenage Julie (Morgan Saylor) and preteen Jamie (Elsie Fisher), Jim relocates to this small agricultural community, whose population is poor and predominantly Mexican-American.
Credited to feature first-timer Grant Thompson, as well as Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois — the duo who scripted 2006’s similarly fact-based, racially charged sports drama “Glory Road” — the script wastes no time slathering on the culture-clash comedy. (“Are we in Mexico?” one daughter asks as they drive through their dumpy new neighborhood, right before they head over to a nearby restaurant and find themselves thoroughly perplexed by the taco menu.) For their part, Jim’s new neighbors and colleagues react to the clueless gringo in their midst with a mix of amusement, scorn and hospitality, while his young male P.E. students in particular take great pleasure in addressing their coach by his hilarious surname (or “Blanco”).
The fish-out-of-water humor eases up slightly once Jim realizes how naturally fast and athletic his students are — running daily from school to the fields to pick crops in scorching heat will do that to you — and decides to start McFarland High’s first cross-country team. The principal (Valente Rodriguez) is skeptical at first, and so are the boys, who have never thought of themselves as winners or imagined a better life for themselves. In keeping with most dramas of this sort, the most naturally gifted runner on the team, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), is also the most distant and hotheaded, mainly due to troubles at home. The team’s weakest link is Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), the slowest and chubbiest of the three Diaz brothers on the team; no points for guessing who winds up saving the day at the end.
After a cross-country meet where McFarland comes in dead last while more seasoned, better-funded, all-white teams sneer from the sidelines, Jim begins to bond with his boys, whether he’s leading them on exhausting hill-training runs, rolling up his sleeves and joining them in the fields, or being force-fed enchiladas by the indomitable Senora Diaz (a scene-stealing Diana Maria Riva). As the runners step up their pace, the script deals in fairly blunt insights about the harsh economic conditions of life in McFarland, where opportunities are scarce, fathers are regularly in and out of prison, and kids are expected to support their families through manual labor rather than going to college. Yet we also see how sturdy and close-knit most of these families are, and how lovingly they protect their own and help each other out — something from which Jim, a somewhat neglectful father of late, inevitably winds up learning a valuable lesson.
Not unlike “The Blind Side,” “McFarland, USA” is likely to generate some criticism for being the umpteenth film about a white guy productively intervening in the lives of underprivileged minority youth — a charge that has less to do with the facts of Jim White’s genuinely inspiring legacy than with the particular dramatic emphasis that Caro has given them here. A rare studio entertainment featuring a largely Latino ensemble, yet necessarily fronted by a big-name draw like Costner, “McFarland, USA” feels at once mildly progressive and unavoidably retrograde. It presents brief, obligatory snapshots of how the other half lives without ever seeming deeply invested, or even particularly interested, in what it’s showing us.
What’s really at stake throughout this movie is how Jim White and his family feel about it all: their discomfort at being forced to relocate to a low-income Hispanic neighborhood, followed by their gradual realization that, hey, these folks aren’t so bad after all, with their quinceaneras and low-riding Chevys and free-range chickens. When Jim warily mistakes some of his new neighbors for a gangbangers, only to later learn they’re just decent, salt-of-the-earth types who like to drive around in packs, you more or less know what kind of movie you’re watching — one that doesn’t trust the audience to be significantly more enlightened than its protagonist.
None of which detracts from the appeal of Costner’s slyly enjoyable lead performance; at this point in his career, the 60-year-old actor is like a dry wine that gets better — which is to say, tougher and more leathery — with age. Always at the ready with a wisecrack, a challenge or a kind gesture, Costner works up a nice rapport with his appealing younger co-stars, especially the excellent Pratts, who brings a grave emotional intensity to the role of the team’s most compelling individual. Bello is unsurprisingly solid in a conventional supporting-wife role that gives her far too little to do.
Running a tad long at 128 minutes, “McFarland, USA” scarcely needs its third-act swerve into near-tragedy, a twist that merely throws its tricky racial politics into troubling relief. Where the picture excels is as a straightforward sports drama, and Caro delivers the satisfactions of the genre with unfussy verve. Running, it turns out, is one of the more cinematic physical activities out there; its simple logistics guarantee maximum visual clarity, plus ample opportunity for breathtaking overhead shots (courtesy of d.p. Alan Arkapaw, whose 35mm lensing and use of mostly natural light richly convey the heat and atmosphere of this desert town). When Thomas, Danny and their teammates pant their way toward the finish line, accompanied by the guitar-based strains of Antonio Pinto’s score, it’s hard not to feel your pulse racing alongside theirs.
A sequence featuring the real Jim White and the members of his 1987 running team ends the picture on a classy, moving note.