Swim Reaper: Howard pools together Pride’s team.

With lines such as “If you quit now, you quit on those kids…but most importantly, you quit on yourself,” Pride doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. The components of its story arc are predictable: underdogs, resistance, determination, conflict, success. Whether the challenges are spiritual or tangible doesn’t matter: You need only pass the first checkpoint to know the rest of the way.

But with Terrence Howard around, the ride isn’t quite so dull. Howard plays Jim Ellis, a Philadelphia swim coach who, in 1973, helped save a recreation center slated to be shuttered. A competitive Southern swimmer who was often forced out of meets back in the ’60s because of racism, Ellis moves north after obtaining a degree and tries to get a teaching position at an all-white academy. When he’s shut down—no subtlety here—Ellis is sent by the city to help pack up a decrepit rec center that still houses a stubborn janitor, Elston (Bernie Mac), and, somehow, a pristine pool. Outside, drug dealers leer and kids play basketball.

Ellis inherited a mess, but damn if he doesn’t turn it into a family (minus the drug dealers, of course). When the parks department takes away the boys’ hoops, the cleanup guy talks the teenagers into playing ball in the pool. Soon, one is challenging Ellis to a race. Then they’re all swimming. And suddenly they’re so dedicated and good that they talk about forming a team. It would require a reversal of the city’s decision, but how difficult could that be? Apparently, not very. The kids have themselves a team, Ellis is the coach, and Elston looks on and grins.

Unbelievably, it took four screenwriters to whip up this box cake. Its swimming-as-metaphor-for-life raison d’être—which is visually if not intellectually refreshing—is made infinitely more palatable by its funky ’70s soundtrack and charismatic cast. The teenagers are all given natural-feeling distinctions and have an easy camaraderie together, and for once, the veterans take their roles as seriously as the earnest youngsters: Bernie Mac, as usual, delivers his salty sweetness as the tin-man custodian who actually does have a heart. And Howard, who got his break in 2005’s Hustle & Flow, is irresistible as an accidental coach and mentor whose patience with the directionless group is overshadowed only by his wits.

But as warm as Howard’s Ellis can be, he can also wither: After the team members goof off at their first meet and embarrass themselves in front of a mocking white audience, Ellis unleashes a reprimand that’s all the more powerful because of his succinctness and even tone. The kids go from laughing to looking at their shoes, and any audience member who’s ever been schooled may feel a knot in his stomach as well.

Pride falters slightly in the final laps. The script slings a bit too much triteness and first-time director Sunu Gonera squeezes way too many tears out of the characters’ eyes—it’s such a waste when Bernie Mac spends his screen time sniffling instead of shouting out acerbic if loving encouragement. But while Elston blubbers, James Brown “uhn”s over the final moments of a triumphant race. Just when you think the sugar’s coming full-strength, Pride finds an entertaining way to cut it after all.