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In many ways, McFarland, USA is a typical sports movie. You know the drill: A committed coach leads an underdog high school team to a state championship, and — as cliche has it — the crowd goes wild.

Typical, yes, but McFarland, USA separates itself from the pack by taking time to develop the social milieu surrounding the triumphs of McFarland High School’s first cross-country team.

Costner coaches Team McFarland
Costner coaches Team McFarland

That’s another way of saying that the movie brings us into the world of poor Mexican-American field workers who are stuck in a cycle of hard work for limited rewards.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider and North Country) provides the requisite sports inspiration, but also creates a realistic social context in which a downtrodden coach (Kevin Costner) can’t succeed until he develops a real understanding of the California community in which he and his wife (Maria Bello) have landed.

Costner’s Jim White begins the movie on a downward spiral. An explosive temper has gotten him fired from his job as a football coach at an Idaho high school. If he fails in McFarland, his career probably is over.

White must adjust to being one of the few Anglos in a solidly Mexican-American community where working the fields is regarded as more important than running in cross-country competitions.

That’s not a statement about class preference, but a reflection of harsh economic realities. Struggling families need all the hands they can get, and kids often awaken at 4:30 a.m. so that they can put in a morning’s work as pickers before school starts.

The proverbial fish out of water, White quickly gets crosswise with McFarland’s head football coach, and loses his position as an assistant.

He begins to look even more depressed than usual. But during physical education classes, White notices that some of the school’s young men have both speed and endurance. The inevitable lightbulb lights. White tries to interest his students in forming a cross-country team.

It requires time for White to persuade these young runners to take the sport seriously and for them to indoctrinate him into the ways of their community.

Costner isn’t afraid to appear clueless. Having never coached cross-country before, White’s feeling his way into a new arena. He’s also learning from his charges, even as they learn from him.

At one point, White goes into the fields to discover precisely what his students contend with on a daily basis. Later, he decides to throw a quinceanera for his oldest daughter, who’s turning 15.

Inspired by a real-life story, McFarland, USA grounds itself in dusty realism and also boasts appealing performances from its youthful cast.

McFarland, USA may not find its way into anyone’s sports-movie hall of fame, but it’s a well-intended and modest entertainment that appreciates the value of life in a close-knit community and has the decency to present its moments of triumph without beating us over the head — at least not too hard.