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film review

Kevin Costner is coach White, in every way imaginable.Ron Phillips

Unhappy the film that has no heroes? No. Unhappy the film that needs heroes.

A thespian the level of Kevin Costner would recognize a paraphrasing of Brecht, and he would also recognize a meal ticket. Costner, who in McFarland plays a high school coach who inspires an unlikely group of Latino cross-country runners toward championship achievements, is something of white-knight specialist. He saved natives in Dances With Wolves, he protected Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard, he cleaned up Dodge City in Wyatt Earp and he's the whitey of this year's Black or White.

As he is 60 years old, presumably Costner grew up watching Welcome Back, Kotter and The White Shadow, both with ethnic students reached and cajoled by a Caucasian interloper. In Disney's McFarland, the Boom Boom Washingtons, Juan Epsteins, Go-Go Gomezes and Mario (Salami) Pettrinos of seventies television are represented by a group of under-achieving Mexican-American students whose parents do the grunt work of California's central-valley fields of plenty.

They're called "pickers," and without the motivation from Costner's clipboard-carrying character, these long-distance running sons of cabbage harvesters are destined to become pickers themselves. Indeed, some of the boys are there already, putting in a few hours every morning before class.

McFarland, a paper-thin feel-good drama with patriotic overtones from Whale Rider director Niki Caro, is based on a real-life culture clash. Coach Jim White – derisively referred to as "blanco" by his initially wary student-athletes in the film – built a California cross-country dynasty from scratch.

Costner is Coach White, in every way imaginable.

It should be noted that McFarland is titled McFarland, USA in the land of stars, stripes and Mexican-border walls. There's a bit of preaching with the film – that immigrants can, with a little white-skinned inspiration, better themselves. Through discipline and the right choices, the young runners can keep to the better side of the prison's barbed wire they lope past daily as part of their training.

"There ain't nothin' American Dream about this place," the star runner says, about the economically challenged town. Coach White doesn't correct the poor grammar, but he does put right an attitude, telling his boys that their legs can take them places they never dreamed of.

Beyond the dark and light pigments, the tones here are decidedly red, white and blue. At an important competition that pits the cash-strapped squad against the country-club elite, the underprivileged townspeople of McFarland sing, with hands over hearts, The Star-Spangled Banner. We hear Spanish guitars, we see a bald eagle soaring, over the land of the free.

It's all a bit much. The film's chief annoyance though is Costner's underwritten character. Coach White is a bit of maverick, bouncing from school to school because of his nonconformist ways. Yet we don't really learn much about what makes him tick.

Costner, comfortable as an uncomplicated hero, probably didn't mind the lack of depth. He's never brought much in the way of nuance to the screen, and he's not looking to start now. Ultimately the problem with Costner is not an inability to act himself out of a paper bag, but his willingness to act himself into one.