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Film review

Racing to success past all cliches

Published October 21, 2005

If horse races were as easy to predict as movies about horse racing, we'd all be millionaires. Then why does Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story work on viewers so well?

Start with John Gatins' screenwriting, which has an emotional purity making every underdog (more precisely, underhorse) cliche slip past without much cynical scrutiny. Then it's Gatins' direction, a first-timer with enough sense, or perhaps insecurity, to allow a cast of highly capable actors to breathe some freshness and sincerity into such familiar material.

Dreamer is an old-fashioned family flick that doesn't seem to realize how often we've seen this routine before. The horse in question isn't even known as Dreamer, but as Sonador, a Spanish translation that wouldn't entice as many moviegoers.

Is there any doubt that Sonador will win the climactic race, in this case the Breeders Cup championship? Not a bit. But it's the obstacles getting to the race that Gatins and his actors navigate so well. I walked in fully aware of what I'd see, and walked out dabbing away a few tears.

Rather than a boy and his dog, we have a girl and her horse, and what a girl. Dakota Fanning's talent used to seem overly coached, but she's getting subtler with age. She plays Cale Crane, a spunky kid whose father Ben (Kurt Russell, another actor deserving reconsideration) is a top-notch horse trainer. One of his mounts, Sonador (played by Sacrifice) takes a nasty spill during a race and breaks a leg. Cale's pleading eyes urge him to save the animal from euthanasia although the decision costs him his job with a world-class owner (David Morse).

Thanks to advice from Ben's antagonistic father, Pop Crane (Kris Kristofferson), Sonador recovers enough to have breeding potential. That plan fails, so the only way Ben can save his financial situation is by racing the horse. Cale sees a pet; Ben sees profit. Eventually, they get Sonador into competitive shape, with the help of an overweight workout jockey (Freddy Rodriguez) and a clownish handler (Luis Guzman).

Even the superficially inept nature of the team ensures Sonador will win in these cinematic circumstances.

It's the little touches that create just enough doubt for Gatins' movie to succeed, however modestly. Many are provided by Fanning, as when she secretly shares Popsicles with Sonador, or her expressions when the horse is taken away by claiming rules and returned by Ben's sacrifice. Then again, her emoting wouldn't matter if Russell and Elisabeth Shue, playing her mother, weren't as precisely controlled with their firmness or laxity in dealing with adult problems.

The father-son conflict between Ben and Pop is revealed enough to matter without distracting. The marital conflict is minor compared to a lot of movie melodrama, but it's enough motivation for Ben to try harder than he has before. Morse's rival role isn't evil, but purely business. Nothing in Gatins' movie goes so far as to be unbelievable except the final reel, and by then we're hooked.

A violin-based musical score and Fred Murphy's lovely shots of the Kentucky landscape and racetrack action complete the package. And that's exactly what Dreamer is: a package of every athlete cliche - on two or four legs - that Hollywood has delivered for decades. In the never-ending movie race between what's new and so what, Dreamer wins by a nose, but that's enough.

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

Grade: B

Director: John Gatins

Cast: Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Elisabeth Shue, Kris Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, Freddy Rodriguez, David Morse, Ken Howard, Oded Fehr

Screenplay: John Gatins

Rating: PG; brief crude language

Running time: 102 min.

[Last modified October 20, 2005, 09:58:03]

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