There are a million different ways McFarland, USA could (and, frankly, should) have failed as a film. Fortunately the one and only way it could actually work was the exact path that Disney and director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) went down.

Yet another inspirational sports film starring Kevin Costner, McFarland tells the true story of a down-on-his-luck high school coach who gets fired more than often than he goes to the grocery store. In the fall of 1987, he finally lands in the central California town, which is essentially Mexico North, due to the large immigrant population. And no sooner is he there then he’s looking for a way to move on to somewhere new.

On his first day, though, he sees that his gym class is made up of a bunch of speed demons, so he gets the idea to start the school’s first cross country running team. The team is made up entirely of immigrant kids who spend their mornings and evenings picking crops; their stamina is through the roof, and they’re naturally fast since they run everywhere.

Throughout McFarland I kept waiting for the cliches and stereotypes to rear their ugly heads, but thankfully they never came. What could have been yet another movie about a grumpy Caucasian coach transforming a gaggle of down-on-their-luck minority kids into an athletic force-to-be-reckoned-with instead remains content to be a simple, heartwarming story about two cultures getting to know each other.

Being a Disney production, the movie conveniently and consciously avoids much of the racial undercurrent that a more edgy film might have put front and center, but I’ll argue that there’s just enough here to be a significant topic of discussion with the younger crowd, and not so much that you’ll ever have to yell, ‘Earmuffs!’ The result is a film that everyone can enjoy. And they will.

Costner definitely seems to have his groove back. His last three outings (Draft Day, Black or White, and now McFarland, USA) all were elevated by his honest and driven performance. He could have very well “phoned it in” in each and every one, but instead he helps us remember his good ol’ days in quality fare like Field of Dreams and The Untouchables.

Caro, directing her first big-budget feature in almost a decade, takes special care throughout McFarland to highlight the Mexican culture– from the food to the traditions to the sense of community pride. And screenwriters Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Grant Thompson make sure the characters are given short shrift either; Carlos Pratts shines as the team’s star runner, and Diana Maria Riva is a scene-stealer as the mother of three of the other runners.

There are some definitely familiar themes at play in here– enough so that you could even call it the Hoosiers of cross country running, but when that’s the comparison you’re drawing, I’d say you did something right. And McFarland, USA is indeed a rousing, family-friendly success, from start to finish.

4/5 stars