Can a white coach, played by Kevin Costner, turn a track team of poor, mostly Mexican-American kids into cross-country champions? Silly question. Would Disney make the movie otherwise? Inspiration is for sale in McFarland, USA. And though more than a spoonful of sugar is slathered over the fact-based script, the movie delivers as promised on the thrill of the race and the lump in the throat.
Costner is solid and persuasive as Jim White, a coach who gets fired in Idaho for being a hothead. So in 1987, he packs up his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) and accepts a lesser, lower-paying job teaching science and PE at McFarland High in California farm country. At first, the students don't cotton to this Mr. White gringo they call "Blanco." But then he persuades the principal (Valente Rodriguez) to let him start the school's first cross-country track team. The students aren't as easily influenced. They have jobs to do before and after school, grueling work that helps support their families. But when Blanco shows them how the stamina they've developed by picking crops under a blazing sun can be a useful tool in running, they're hooked.
So are we, thanks to the fleet direction of Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and no-bull performances by the boys, notably Carlos Pratts as the team's best runner and Ramiro Rodriguez as the worst. Along the way, McFarland, USA gives us a vital sense of hardscrabble lives and dreams of glory deferred. All cheers here are fully earned.