This America's-changing sports and race drama is well made, well acted, and sometimes beautiful. The sport here is cross-country; in 1987 the real-life Jim White (Kevin Costner) founded and coached McFarland, California's underfunded squad of after-school farm-laborers to triumph against California's best-funded schools. There's many stirring shots of the boys racing through the hard dirt and honeyed light of the bluffs, orange groves, and scrub-brushed hills of the San Joaquin Valley. All this is done with uncommon vigor and spirit. Sometimes, the movie even goes silent, communicating simple ideas of friendship or gutsiness without music or chatter.
Costner's face has a lot in common with those landscapes. It's golden, time-toughened, immediately arresting yet also harsh enough that you have to warm up to it. There's something affecting about his gruffness and his hangdog squinting, a suggestion that the American future he's staring into isn't exactly what he expected, but it's something he can rise to.
The film is like a two-hour version of a Brad Paisley hit: a well-crafted fluff attempt at easing the discomfort of its target audience about the ways our lives are changing. That means it will look hokey -- even racist -- to the people it's not made for, those of us who groan when White discovers that Mexican food is wonderful, that Mexican-American family life is rich and loving, or that picking cabbages is excruciating work. Of course it is, you yutz! But before chucking fruit at it, remember that McFarland is part of something truly rare in world history: Here is a drama crafted to help a jittery majority accept that life is better once they stop pretending the minority is other.