Dreamer (United States, 2005)
While many movies claim to be based on true stories, Dreamer takes it one step further. The film's official name is Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. The word "inspired" allows a lot of creative license. In fact, very little of what happens in Dreamer bears a relationship to something that happened in real life, so the "true story" part of the equation is a red herring. Ultimately, the question is not whether Dreamer is "true" but whether it's entertaining. The answer to that question likely depends on your age. Dreamer is a kids' movie. It offers the simple black-and-whites of innocence, with no grays to add complexity. From the first frame, you will know not only how the movie is going to end, but roughly the path it's going to take to get there. Children enjoy watching their favorite films repeatedly, since there's comfort in the known. That's what Dreamer offers - the assurance that anything bad that happens to the characters will be temporary and there will be a happily-ever-after, fairytale ending.
The story, which plays like a juvenile Seabiscuit or a less cartoonish Racing Stripes (the animals don't talk in this one), introduces us to the Crane family. Ben (Kurt Russell) is the dad - he owns the only horse farm in Kentucky without any horses and makes his living training thoroughbreds to win races. His wife, Lily (Elisabeth Shue), is a part-time waitress at a local diner. Their precocious daughter, Cale (Dakota Fanning), loves horses almost as much as she does her mother and father. Next door to the Cranes lives Ben's curmudgeon of a father (Kris Kristofferson). He doesn't visit much because he and his son aren't on the best of terms.
One day, Ben is getting his prize filly, Sonador, ready for a big race. But there's something wrong. Against Ben's advice, the avaricious Palmer (David Morse), decides to run her. Mid-way around the track, she collapses with a broken foreleg. Palmer fires Ben and orders the horse destroyed. In lieu of salary owed, Ben agrees to take the stricken animal. Palmer is glad to be rid of them both. Over the next several months, Ben nurses Sonador back to health, hoping to mate her with a stallion and make a few hundred thousand dollars from the offspring. In the meantime, Cale becomes attached to the horse. After discovering that Sonador is infertile, Ben decides to see if she can race again and learns, to his surprise, that her days on the track may not be finished.
The film contains two dynamics, neither of which is presented with an attempt at subtlety. On the one hand, we have the story of the brave, courageous horse that beats the odds to race again. (Interwoven with this is the story of a brave, courageous jockey who beats the odds to race again.) Then there's the parent/child relationship, as Cale re-connects with her father as a result of the story of the brave, courageous horse that beats the odds to race again. (Interwoven with this is another parent/child relationship, as Ben re-connects with his father as a result of the story of the brave, courageous horse… you get the point.) Writer/director John Gatins has done an adequate job of connecting the dots from the screenplay-by-formula book.
Dreamer offers evidence of why Dakota Fanning is one of the best child actors working today. Not only is she unaffected, but she never succumbs to the "isn't she cute" syndrome. She's a natural, normal kid. Too many young performers do everything they can to melt the lens and our hearts. Fanning simply acts. She's the best thing in the movie. Close behind is Elisabeth Shue, who does a surprising amount with minimal material. Kurt Russell is adequate in the disconnected dad role (sort of a kinder version of the Robert Redford character from An Unfinished Life). Kris Kristofferson does his usual shtick. And David Morse hams it up as the bad guy. All that's missing is a twirl of the mustache.
I have seen enough movies to know that "wholesome" does not have to equate to "unoriginal." Yet there's not an inventive moment in the entire film. Gatins does a good enough job with the material to manipulate appropriate reactions from his audience at key moments, but that's not an endorsement. Kids will cheer at almost anything happy. On the plus side, there's not an inappropriate instance in Dreamer, making it suitable for the under-seven crowd. The problem is that anyone older than that age is going to wish they had shot the horse and gotten things over with in the first fifteen minutes.
Dreamer (United States, 2005)
Cast: Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson, Elisabeth Shue, David Morse, Freddy Rodriguez, Luis Guzman
Screenplay: John Gatins
Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Dreamworks