Few of the clichés of the inspirational high-school sports movie go unused in “McFarland, USA,” but it must be added that Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) employs them to better effect than might be expected. The result is a moderately engaging example of the genre that does nothing unpredictable but manages to follow the established template fairly well. And the fact that it celebrates Hispanic culture—even if with a heavy hand—constitutes a slight tweaking of the formula.

The fact-based period crowd-pleaser centers on Jim White (Kevin Costner), an Idaho football coach canned from his high-school job in 1987 when he responds to a player’s disrespect with a bit too much physicality. The only gig he can find is as an assistant coach and science instructor at a hardscrabble school in McFarland, California a town in the San Joaquin Valley with a heavy concentration of Mexican farm-worker families. So off he goes with wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) in tow, only to find upon their arrival that they’re fish out of water in the heavily Hispanic environment.

The school’s football team is pretty much a joke, and Jim quickly tussles with the head coach over how to work with them. But he notices that some of the players are exceptionally fast runners, and persuades the frazzled but likable principal (Valente Rodriguez) to let him create a cross-country team. The boys are initially cool to the idea, but eventually he’s able to put together a roster that includes Diaz brothers Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), David (Rafael Martinez) and Damacio (Michael Aguero) and Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), the fastest of them all.

Naturally they come in dead last in their initial foray into competition, where other, well-established teams from far richer schools not only trounce them but jeer at their shoes and their complexions. But Jim hunkers down and begins training them seriously, and they manage to eke out a win over a rival team that gives both coach and runners enthusiasm and increasing confidence. Soon they’re a team to be contended with, winding up at the state championship meet.

Of course that’s not all there is to the script credited to Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson. Along the way there are obstacles, especially those arising from the fact that the practices and meets interfere with the boys’ hours in the fields to help support their families; Jim will have to prove himself—and adjust the schedule—to make things work. And, of course, an acculturation process is required for the Whites to accommodate themselves to McFarland—Jim learns, much to his relief, that the low-riding fellows he originally took to be gang-bangers are far from the stereotype. Yet there are dangers, as an incident following Julie’s quinceañera (an event that brings all the community together, as does an early benefit car-wash) rather ham-fistedly points out. But even that is overcome in the big finale, which finds all the townspeople coming out to cheer the team on in the championship meet—and lustily joining in the singing of the national anthem, a rather obvious way of emphasizing their marginalized status in American society. Jim, meanwhile, must weigh an offer from another school even as his boys are running the race.

There are various complaints one can raise about “McFarland, USA.” It is, after all, yet another recitation of the formula that depicts disadvantaged kids led to achieve their untouched potential by an outsider—and a flawed white one at that. And even though it concludes with a sequence showing White and his 1987 team in the present, there’s the lingering suspicion that—as in all the pictures of this genre—a good deal of narrative tinkering has been done to heighten the drama. (The McFarland cross-country team did, however, achieve a remarkable 24-year record of state championship appearances since 1987.)

Still, though Caro’s movie has its share of problems, it treads the familiar sports-picture territory more steadily than most. Though Costner could play this part in his sleep—and occasionally looks as though he might be doing so—his innate sense of rugged, if vulnerable righteousness carries him through. The boys are an engaging bunch, with Pratts standing out as the hopeful but troubled Thomas. Bello, unfortunately, is pretty much wasted in a thankless role, but there are some standouts in the supporting cast—most notably Diana Maria Riva, as the vibrant Señora Diaz, though Rodriguez and others also add a good deal of local color. On the technical side, Richard Hoover’s production design, Cameron Birnie’s set design and Alice Baker’s decoration, Karen Stewart’s art direction and Sophie de Rakoff’s costumes all capture the period with a light touch, and Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography takes advantage of their work, as well as the realistic locations. Antonio Pinto’s score adds some Latino touches to the usual rah-rah strains essential to such movies.

The very addition of “USA” to the title demonstrates that this picture isn’t shy about making its points. Subtlety is not its strong suit. But that’s the nature of the genre, and “McFarland” does get the adrenaline pumping in the final lap. It might cross the finish line a bit winded, but overall proves more sure-footed than most of its inspirational sports-movie cousins.