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Rousing underdog tale ‘McFarland’ wins hearts

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Rousing underdog tale ‘McFarland’ wins hearts

February 19
22:57 2015

McFarland, USA is a feel-good sports movie that actually lives up to the notion. The idea of an inspirational saga anchored by Kevin Costner doesn’t elicit the hopes it might have when Field of Dreams came out in 1989. Such movies have come to rely heavily on formula and cliché, possibly more than any other genre.635500985690760008-XXX-MCFARLAND-USA-MOV-JY-3690-68240686

So it’s a particularly happy surprise that McFarland turns out to be a cross-cultural charmer (*** out four; rated PG, opens Friday nationwide), an endearing true story told with intelligence and warmth by director Niki Caro (2002′s Whale Rider). It’s especially heartening given Costner’s recent starring role in the disappointing Black or White. His McFarland role plunges him initially into similar clueless white guy terrain, but allows him to grow. The premise may sound obvious and potentially forced, but it comes off as authentic.

Costner plays the coach of a scrappy high school cross-country team competing for a state championship. The all-Latino team from Central California is made up of the children of farm workers, and they rise well before dawn to pick fruits and vegetables, then attend school and spend afternoons and evenings training. But before the inspiring part kicks in, McFarland presents a bumpy opening worthy of hurled tomatoes.

Coach Jim White (Costner), his wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters move to the dusty town of McFarland and are immediately put off by the poor farming community. Their first stop is at a local eatery that serves Mexican food. When a waitress tells Jim what’s on the menu — tacos — he acts as though they’re serving Martian cuisine. “Don’t you have a burger?” he whines obstinately. As the family leaves the restaurant, car club members roll by in customized vehicles. Dim Jim fearfully rushes his family away as if the car enthusiasts were wielding guns.

First tacos, then low-riders. What’s a Middle American gringo to do? To Jim’s credit, he stops jumping to conclusions and throws himself into coaching. Sure, it may be his last chance since he was fired a few times for clashes with school administrators. But he gets over his xenophobia, which is what counts.