Take one creeping-past-middle-age white actor, one sport and at least one underdog (preferably a scrappy band of them), then sweeten to taste. That's the Disney sports-movie formula, tried and true over the last decade or so. You've got your Kurt Russell in "Miracle" (hockey), your Dennis Quaid in "The Rookie" (baseball), your Greg Kinnear in "Invincible" (football), your Jon Hamm in "Million Dollar Arm" (cricket meets baseball). Now, there's "McFarland, USA": Kevin Costner, cross-country running and a team of skeptical Mexican-American boys.
"McFarland, USA" treads in tricky territory with its racial politics: not so much for the choice of true-story material (the account of an unlikely rural high school dynasty probably deserves the big-screen treatment) as the way it's been doctored by screenwriters to fit the condescending narrative: "White savior props up wayward brown people." Screenwriters Grant Thompson, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois hammer away at the culture-clash possibilities of the material, starting with the gift that keeps on giving: the main character's name, Jim White.
In the film's opening sequence, Costner's football-coaching White takes a misstep in Boise, Idaho, and has to relocate his family to McFarland, "Fruit Bowl of California" and "one of the poorest towns in America." It's the fall of 1987, and Life Sciences teacher White finds himself starting at the bottom as an assistant football coach alienated, along with his family, by his new surroundings (arriving in town, White's 10-year-old daughter asks, "Are we in Mexico?"). Taciturn gringo "Blanco" talks himself out of football and into cross-country when he realizes the boys of McFarland High School, pickers and the sons of pickers, "carbo load on rice and beans" and sprint across fields to get from school to work.
"Nobody wins around here, White," he's told (by Carlos Pratts' chip-on-his-shoulder runner Thomas), but White has a vision that transcends the pitfalls of needy families, thug life (low riders and prisons loom on the margins of the story) and his own total lack of experience with the sport. It all sounds worse on paper than it plays in the hands of the actors and director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider," "North Country"), but it's still pretty darn gloppy, from the blatant racism the runners face from their competitors (some of them from Palo Alto) to the lessons White's students teach the teacher with their commitment to hard work and family values. The latter help White recognize, in big-speech form, "the kind of privilege someone like me takes for granted."
On the way to the state championship, the sports-drama functions predictably and Costner is typically magnetic. It's tempting to hail the picture for the exposure it brings to Latino characters, but audiences of all ethnicities deserve far better than the easy stereotypes "McFarland, USA" trades in. What could have been an inspirational teacher-student story stoops to the trope of minority characters not being able to see their own way to prosperity without a guiding white light, who in turn learns from their unsophisticated purity. This kind of "salt of the earth" poisons growth.
Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language. Two hours, 8 minutes.