McFarland, USA ***
Dir: Niki Caro. With: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez, Morgan Saylor. 129 mins. Cert: PG
This year’s Disney-sponsored true-life sports movie marks an improvement on 2014’s Million Dollar Arm. Kevin Costner brings old-school moviestar authority to his role as a much-fired football coach making state-beating cross-country runners out of the titular outpost’s Latino kids; director Niki Caro displays the same sharp yet sensitive eye for Mexicana as she showed for Maori customs in 2002’s Whale Rider, fostering something subtly atmospheric amid the Californian heat and dust. That this genre remains chiefly a male domain is evident from the way the Coach’s missus (Maria Bello) gets packed off to the salon, and everybody has to circumnavigate some on-the-nose scripting. (There are literal uphill struggles.) Yet Caro and Costner work hard and well with the youngsters: long before Coach’s big, white privilege-checking rallying speech, the film has generated the cloud of warm liberal fuzziness required to carry us up over the pick-and-mix platitudes and predictable narrative diversions. You run with it, just.
McFarland, USA is now playing in cinemas nationwide.