American Sniper notwithstanding, the first fresh multiplex trend to emerge in 2015 is Old White Dudes Learning How to Share Their World. First came Kevin Costner in the sour Black or White, playing a coot who discovers that black folks love their kids too, even in South Los Angeles. Who knew? Then, in the Lucasfilm princess bomb Strange Magic, a plump fairy king looking exactly like George Lucas himself comes to grips with the fact that his flitting, ivory-skinned daughter wants to marry the film's brown-skinned, gnome-like comic-relief sidekick. After recovering, the Lucas-king actually pronounces he'll no longer judge anyone based on their appearance, a lesson he speaks as if he's the first one to think of it.
And now here's Disney's McFarland, USA, the first of this lot not to feel like the executives who approved it got canned after the first test screening. It works, kind of, despite its broadness, its obviousness, and its howlingly awful opening: Costner, playing coach Jim White, drives his family to a taqueria in McFarland, their new town, a dusty farming community near Bakersfield. Costner ambles to the counter, squints at his choices, and looks baffled when a woman rattles off the specialties: tacos, burritos, enchiladas.
He asks, with confounded desperation, "Don't you have a burger?"
Have you seen Walk Hard, the deeply undervalued parody of musician biopics? Costner here sounds exactly like that film's angry father, played by Raymond J. Barry, shouting, "Speak English, doc!" at the country sawbones who has just told him his son has been sliced in half.
Eventually, the Whites settle on these mysterious "tacos" and afterward panic at the sight of something the movie seems to think that you, the viewer, will agree is terrifying: Mexican-American men rolling down the street in customized lowriders.
How will Costner's White go from queso-fearing gringo to a man so in touch with his community that, at the climax, he confesses to the sons of fruit-pickers that there's "a kind of privilege that someone like me takes for granted"? (Lay down some tarp at Fox — Bill O'Reilly's head is gonna kaboom like a Death Star.) He gets there through inspirational sports action, of course, and the cross-cultural celebration of hard work — and a shared disdain for the prep-school have-it-alls of Palo Alto.
Also, a sweet abuelita gives White a live chicken, and everyone in town gets together to throw his daughter a surprise quinceañera, so even the build-a-fence crowd in Costner's fan base might go along with this. After all, the trick with most fearful old white folks is that they quite like the minorities they know and work with — it's the ones they haven't met who must be massing together to destroy everything that once was great about America.
The film is well made, well acted, and sometimes beautiful. The sport here is cross-country; the real-life White founded and coached McFarland's team, leading an underfunded squad of after-school farm-laborers to triumph against California's best-funded schools. Because the training and competition scenes involve running, McFarland, USA proves more pleasant and meditative than Disney's baseball and football movies. There are many stirring shots of the boys racing through the hard dirt and honeyed light of the San Joaquin Valley. There are sunsets to relish as they dash up and down plastic-covered heaps of almonds; the camera glides along bluffs and reservoirs; and the filmmakers take every advantage of the bluffs, orange groves, and scrub-brushed hills through which the kids charge. All of 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. Once in a while, in just the right conditions, it blooms. Costner was the best thing in Black or White, but even he couldn't quite make that character's jumble of traits cohere into anything resembling a person. Here, once his White begins connecting with the kids, he's much better, probably the perfect actor for this kind of role: 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.
Costner's old white guy gets razzed some, but he's never a clown. Of course, he also has his moments of telling people not like him how to get their lives together, but this time at least he seems concerned, well-meaning, not just another white dude airing his grievances. The film is like a two-hour version of a Brad Paisley hit: It's well-crafted fluff that's actually quite serious, an attempt at easing the discomfort of its target audience about the ways our lives are changing. That means it will look hokey — perhaps 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 the screen, 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.