Feel-good family movies are easy to bully. They’re sweet natured, optimistic, and equipped with the happiest of endings. Might as well be wearing a “Kick Me” sign. It’s always a tossup between bringing a box of Kleenex or a barf bag when I see them, if I can muster up the nerve to go at all. Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story makes the struggle effortless, as a film that manages to be delightful without becoming so sappy that it causes sickly-sweet nausea. Don’t let the dreadful title dissuade you.
What immediately separates Dreamer from other horse movies like Seabiscuit, are its surprisingly depressing backstories and ability to make you feel things genuinely. The Cranes, barely scraping by financially, live in Lexington, Kentucky, in the only house without a horse in the barn. Ben (Kurt Russell) is a down-on-his luck horseman, whose gifts as a trainer have been reduced to helping greedy men win big at the racetrack. His father (Kris Kristofferson) thinks he is making a mess of his life, and often does little to lift his spirits. Lily (Elisabeth Shue) works for minimum wage at a diner, and loves Ben despite his constant gloomy mood. And then there’s their daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning), who desperately wants one thing she cannot have: her father’s attention.
A gorgeous brown horse named Sonador (“Dreamer” in Spanish), nicknamed Sonya for short, is a two-year-old racing champ. Ben points out that Sonya is not physically ready to run the next race, but his greedy slob of a boss (David Morse) ignores him and sends her running anyway. In a scene that's riveting even though you know what’s coming, Sonya races against other horses in a crowded venue with people cheering, and has the lead in first place. That is, until her leg gives out and she tumbles over onto her side, breaking the bone and taking the jockey down with her. The old disclaimer of “no animals were injured during the filming of the movie” flashes in the final credits, but the scene looks so real and heartbreaking that it’s almost frightening.
Ben quits his job and decides to work full time on bringing this “good as dead” horse back to her glory days, after Cale sees a man running after the horse with a syringe full of euthanasia fluid. Ben may not be father of the year, but he doesn’t want his daughter to witness such a trauma, at least not until her 11th birthday. Cale becomes attached to the horse, creating a bond by bringing her cherry popsicles and pieces of pie. The distant family is bound together trying to rejuvenate this horse (with many bad news bummers along the way), and in turn, trying to save their family from poverty and emotional detachments.
The outcome of Dreamer is not bound to shock anyone who’s seen a movie before, but the journey is where the treasure lies. It’s a sweet story that doesn’t resort to full out tear-tugging or overt manipulations, and it’s perfect to bring the kids to see. Dakota Fanning entered the acting scene a few years ago and has been cast in every movie about children ever since. There is one scene in the movie where she says, “Please don’t treat me like a little kid,” seemingly forgetting herself that she is one. She drinks coffee in the film and becomes a walking horse encyclopedia, spewing equine facts with the greatest of ease. But scary adult-like behavior aside, she has a childlike vulnerability that works in these types of roles.
Dreamer is more than just a movie about a kid and her horse; it’s about a family lifting themselves up from nothing and trying to recapture the gold that life has to offer. It’s a bit hokey, sure, but it’s aimed at hopeful children, not middle-aged cynics. That's not to say that it's free of problems. It can be a bit ham-heavy, and it's not winning any prizes for originality. Dreamer may have a familiar feel, but hey, it made me a little verklempt. We could all use a little cheese in our diets.