`Dreamer' is an emotional ride

Dakota Fanning is the neglected child with an injured horse

MovieReview C+

October 21, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Heartstrings are pulled mercilessly in Dreamer, in ways one should expect from a movie about a young girl, a lame horse and a father who doesn't have time for either.

Dakota Fanning, proving again why she is the hot young actress of the moment, is young Cale Crane, a girl who starts off the film desperately wanting to spend more time with her dad, Ben (Kurt Russell). Unfortunately, he's too busy training horses for rich jerks like Everett Palmer, who don't care a whit about their horses as long as they win races. But when one of the horses, Sonador, breaks a bone in her leg trying, Ben loses his cool and tells Palmer what he thinks of him. His rant costs Ben his job but gains him a horse, as Palmer - played by David Morse, who does everything but twirl his mustache to appear the personification of evil - no longer has any use for the lame filly.

Sonador, shortened to Sonya, proves just the bonding agent Ben and Cale need. The two work tirelessly to help the horse heal, first with an eye toward using her to breed more racehorses, then with the unlikely goal of having her race in the prestigious Breeder's Cup.

But Sonya isn't the only one on the Cale farm with issues. Ben has to get past a running feud with his crusty dad (Kris Kristofferson), a one-time horseman who's sworn off the business. Cale has to somehow convince her dad that a life working with horses is not the one-way ticket to pain and obscurity he thinks it is. Even Sonya's jockey, Manolin (Freddy Rodriguez), has to overcome the fear of riding he's had since falling off his mount a few years back.

That's an awful lot of emotional pain for one horse to salve.

First-time writer-director John Gatins clearly sees Dreamer as both emotional and inspirational and has geared it toward family viewing. That's fine, and, in fact, it's the kind of film a whole family can enjoy. Still, it would have been nice if Gatins had reined in the story's fairy-tale feel just a little bit. In Dreamer, modest victories are never enough; it's the brass ring or nothing. When it's decided that Sonya is ready to race again, for instance, Cale doesn't set her sights on just any race, but the Breeder's Cup.

Strong performances, especially from Fanning and Russell, almost make up for the melodramatic bent of Gatins' script. For a young actress, Fanning's ability to appear sincere and unaffected on- screen is remarkable; a scene where she runs after her dad's car, determined not to let him leave without her inside, is honestly heart-rending, in ways much of the rest of the movie can't approach. And Russell, who's rarely mentioned among Hollywood's leading men, proves again why he should be, with a performance of strength and conviction.

"Inspired" by a true story - and that word, "inspired," gives the filmmakers all sorts of leeway - Dreamer has a tendency to force rather than cajole its audience to feel a certain way. A little more finesse would have made this horse a real winner, instead of making the audience feel it's watching a race where the fix is in, and the finish already has been decided.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Dreamer (DreamWorks Pictures)

Starring Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson.

Directed by John Gatins.

Rated PG.

Time 102 minutes.

Review C+

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