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Zaki's Review: McFarland, USA

02/20/2015 10:00 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

When I reviewed Ivan Reitman's behind-the-scenes football drama Draft Day last year, I made the observation that pairing star Kevin Costner with any given athletic competition tends to pay crowd-pleasing dividends. And now here comes McFarland, USA to help me double down on the point. The true-life tale, directed by Whale Rider's Niki Caro and featuring Costner as the harried coach of an underdog cross country team in California's Central Valley, tells its by-the-bootstraps story so winningly that, predictable though it may be, it's still hard not to find it thoroughly rousing.

It's 1987, and Costner's Jim White finds himself with dwindling options career-wise. A series of altercations over the course of several coaching gigs has left him with the only job that will have him: serving as the extremely overqualified assistant coach for the extremely underqualified football team at McFarland High, situated in one of the most poverty-stricken municipalities in the entire country. With its student population comprised of a heavily Latino population where higher education is a secondary priority to helping their families earn a living harvesting crops, it sure seems like White has landed in career purgatory.

However, when he observes the preternatural skill with which some of the students are able to run, he realizes that while football championships may not be in the cards for McFarland, cross-country running glory is a possibility. Although he has no background in the sport, White pulls together a team of misfits and sets about getting them prepped. Now, given the nature of the genre, and the fact that this is a true story, I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say the team makes good. What makes McFarland, USA such an effective entry in the genre then is the simple skill with which it takes us through its paces as the characters learn about themselves and each other.

Arriving so soon after last month's Black or White, which had the actor attempting to heal our country's racial divide, one could be forgiven for feeling like 2015 marks a program of cultural outreach for Costner, one ethnic group at a time. Nonetheless, there are so many moments where McFarland could easily have sprinted straight through the bright red barrier separating "complex" and "cloying" (as, indeed, Black or White did), but it never does. Part of this is Costner's easy likability in this kind of role. As I said last month, the guy is just fun to watch, and this is the kind of role that's practically tailor-made for him.

Now, given that I know even less about cross-country racing than I do about football, I kind of scratched my head when I first heard the movie's premise, wondering if it had enough juice to sustain an audience for 128 minutes, but I was happily proven wrong early on. Part of this goes to Caro's approach to the material. By grounding the proceedings in the individual characters' lives, the stakes (both emotional and actual) for each race are made amply clear and easily understood. She does a masterful job of staging the action in a documentary fashion, without pouring too much syrup onto the soundtrack to underscore every "big" moment.

Supporting turns are also solid across the board, from Maria Bello as White's extremely patient wife Cheryl to a cast of young newcomers as his racers (with Carlos Pratts making a particularly strong impression as the team captain). At its heart, McFarland, USA underscores the desire we all have to excel and exceed, to move past our limitations -- whether of class, culture, or education -- and truly distinguish ourselves. There's something so basic about that longing that it allows this story to transcend its specific time and a specific setting and achieve a universality anyone can run towards.

The only question I have now is which sport Kevin Costner will tackle next. B+