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Good Acting, Directing And Story Make 'McFarland USA' Effective

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Early in his career, in films like "Bull Durham" and "Field Of Dreams," the actor Kevin Costner specialized in playing athletes. Now in "McFarland USA" he's moved up to being a coach. Kenneth Turan has our review.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: "McFarland USA" is an unapologetically inspirational Disney sports movie. It sounds familiar and to a certain extent it is. But good acting and directing unite with an unusual true story to make this more effective than you might be expecting. That story belongs to Jim White, played by Kevin Costner. He's a coach who started a high school cross-country team of Mexican-American kids in California's Central Valley and helped it achieve an American Dream level of success no one could've imagined. On White's first day at McFarland High, another teacher tells him, and us, what the lay of the land is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MCFARLAND USA")

VANESSA MARTINEZ: (As Maria Marisol) Welcome to McFarland. This is a farming town. These are good kids, smart kids. They just need a chance at a better future.

TURAN: White starts to notice how fleet of foot the young men at his high school are. He also notices how hard these kids' lives are, and he talks to the school's principal about starting a cross-country team.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MCFARLAND USA")

KEVIN COSTNER: (As Jim White) Cross-country running - California is holding their first state championship this year.

VALENTE RODRIGUEZ: (As Principal Camillo) Cross-country - that's a private school sport. They breathe different air than we do.

COSTNER: (As Jim White) No, it's the same air.

RODRIGUEZ: (As Principal Camillo) You do understand we don't have a cross-country team.

COSTNER: (As Jim White) Yeah, what I don't understand is why we have a football team instead. I mean, we have - we have kids here who seem like they can run forever. They carbo-load on rice and beans. I mean, they pick in extreme heat. They go to school all day. Some of them even run home. I've seen it, and it's unbelievable.

TURAN: "McFarland USA" may sound like a white savior movie, but it doesn't play that way, in part because of the director involved. That would be Niki Caro, who has not made many films since her "Whale Rider" became an international sensation in 2002. Caro's empathy for the students of McFarland High, and equally important, their impoverished families give this film more of a caring, emotional core than it otherwise would've had. Coach White needs saving by this community as much as his runners need his help, and that makes all the difference.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.
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