It’s just the nature of sports: If a coach and his players don’t click, the team’s performance generally suffers. It’s an unfortunate problem for the well-intentioned “McFarland, USA,” in which Kevin Costner’s signature knack for sports movies does little to buoy a stilted culture-clash dynamic. This chronicle of an ’80s high school cross country coach leading a team of Mexican farm laborers’ kids to competitive glory may be based on a true story, but the forced drama doesn’t help it to feel that way.
Costner plays Jim White, a varsity football coach whose temper (rarely Costner’s strength) has made for a bumpy career path. An opening outburst finally lands him in McFarland, a dusty Central California agricultural outpost whose taco joints and low-rider parades are like scenes from another planet to his exaggeratedly white-bread family. (Maria Bello fills the flat role of Mrs. White; Morgan Saylor of “Homeland” is their teen daughter.)
Stubborn “Blanco” soon runs into problems at his new school as well, as he’s busted down to phys-ed duty after clashing with the entrenched head coach. Still, he learns something: a number of his students are awfully fast, and as crop pickers’ boys, they’re certainly accustomed to hard work. Despite White’s total lack of cross country experience, an inspirational sports dream is born.
Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) passably individualizes the team’s stories, focusing in particular on Thomas (Carlos Pratts), who’s suicidally troubled over his dead-end circumstance, and a trio of good-natured brothers whose family farming obligation comes first. And Costner adds an amusing wrinkle to his jock repertoire by playing up White’s unfamiliarity with running culture, right down to clocking meets with an egg timer. But emotionally, we never really buy the idea that this group finds true common ground.
That’s not for lack of trying. Caro and Costner capably handle one sequence with potential to go way over the top, as White joins in on a backbreaking day of lettuce harvesting to better grasp the insane workload his charges are juggling. But a sequence that intercuts between Costner singing along with the national anthem and the boys jogging past a schoolyard-adjacent prison fence is as heavy-handed as it sounds. And unintended awkwardness runs all through the quinceañera that the town throws for White’s daughter, a scene that wants to feel beautiful but instead leaves us nitpicking, distracted by the lipstick on Saylor’s teeth.
It also isn’t particularly convincing when, in the later going, White declines an offer he’s been mulling to oversee an affluent rival district’s entire track program. Not a great thing for a true story about a coach’s bond with his team.
Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.