Running on empty: ‘McFarland, USA’ is a forgettable sports drama

Kevin Costner’s weary, lived-in performance is the best thing about this predictable flick.

Two and a half stars

McFarland, USA Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts. Directed by Niki Caro. Rated PG. Opens Friday.

Kevin Costner’s days of playing athletes onscreen are over, but he’s successfully transitioned into roles as the guy in charge of the athletes, whether as a pro-football general manager in Draft Day or as a high school cross-country coach in the Disney drama McFarland, USA. Costner’s weary, lived-in performance is the best thing about this predictable underdog sports drama, based on the true story of a cross-country team from the impoverished central California town of McFarland that achieved surprising success in the late 1980s.

Coach Jim White (Costner) comes to McFarland as a last resort, after losing a series of jobs thanks to his short temper and stubbornness. Set up as the high school’s assistant football coach, White quickly notices the swift running of many of his students, children of Mexican immigrants who live in poverty and work as fruit and vegetable pickers whenever they aren’t in school. Despite his lack of experience, he convinces the principal to let him start a cross-country team, taking a gamble on his students’ untapped potential.

Shockingly, that potential pays off, and the McFarland team overcomes racism from richer rival schools and skepticism from local parents to rise to the state championships. Along the way, Jim and his family learn to appreciate the vibrant community in which they’ve found themselves, and his students, only some of whom get actual personality traits, learn that this clueless white guy is actually pretty okay.

Costner invests Jim with some genuine humanity, and director Niki Caro, who made a solid working-class drama with 2005’s North Country, captures the town’s mix of grit and resilience (with plenty of sun-dappled images from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw). But the story, fictionalized and streamlined to fit a familiar template, proceeds exactly as expected, with every character fulfilling a preordained role. Jim is much less of an egregious white-savior type than he could have been, but the students barely register as people in a movie that should really be about their struggles. McFarland, USA is well-intentioned and largely inoffensive, but as any coach knows, good intentions aren’t enough to go the distance.

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