“McFarland USA” is yet another movie about an underdog team and the underdog coach who rallies them to glory. The fact that it's based on a true story doesn't alter the fact that, like most such Hollywood movies, it seems fabricated.
Set in California’s Central Valley (home to many Mexican immigrants who toil in the fields), the movie is about Jim White (Kevin Costner), a football coach whose gruff style has cost him so many jobs that this new one, if he flubs it, could be his last. He and his student players are mutually unimpressed with each other. (The boys, virtually all Latino, make fun of his surname.) But Jim realizes early on that, although the players don’t excel at football, they are, thanks to the stamina they’ve built up in the agricultural fields, exceptional cross-country competitors.
Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) and her screenwriters, Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson, play up all the obvious tropes as the team wends its way to the state championships. A few of the young actors, including Carlos Pratts as the most troubled and most gifted of the runners, and Ramiro Rodriguez, as the team’s mascot, are worth watching.
Costner is excellent, as he often is in sports-themed movies (such as “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” and “Tin Cup”). He could have sailed through this film but he gives his role an ingrained orneriness and melancholy that lifts the entire enterprise. Grade: B- (Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language.)