Genre: Adventure, Drama, Family
Director: Michael Mayer
Screenwriters: Mark Rosenthal, Lawrence Konner
Starring: Alison Lohman, Tim McGraw, Maria Bello
In my review of the last girl-and-her-horse movie, I made it clear that, though the flick in question wasn’t it, I was very much looking forward to the next good girl-and-her-horse movie, formula or no. Flicka is almost that holy grail, though those looking for something truly fulfilling in the girl-and-her-horse genre may have to wait a while longer. Though the film is decent — really, better than it deserves to be — it gets as many things wrong as it gets right.
I would guess, though, that the things Flicka gets right are due to the solid instincts of director Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World), while the things it gets wrong were largely imposed by the studio, the genre, or the classic young adult novel that serves as its inspiration. I doubt, for example, that Mayer, who fills the film with many unexpectedly lovely, lyrical moments, would have chosen to set Flicka‘s wrenching emotional centerpiece to a hideously maudlin, ear-piercing country song. I doubt, too, that reassuring ADR dialogue like “I knew we could do it, girl!” played over terrific-looking long shots of our protagonist at last taming her beloved mustang, if for a second.
There is other silliness. Alison Lohman, who plays the 15 or 16 year-old protagonist is 28; Ryan Kwanten, who plays her presumably 18 or 19 year-old brother is almost 30. This is not a new phenomenon, but an unfortunate distraction from what — once again — is really a pretty good family film. There are also elements that seem to be relics from the novel, like a read-aloud essay about how — I am not making this up — horses founded America. Oh, and there’s Tim McGraw as the tough but loving and occasionally misguided father, looking mightily uncomfortable delivering earnest speeches; I forgot how terrific he was in a diametrically opposite role in Friday Night Lights.
And yet, I swear to God, Flicka works. It works in traditional ways — the story takes a while to get going, but by the end it hooked me with its familiar, comfortable, well-executed emotional beats — and less traditional ones — I was surprised by Mayer’s sense of space and motion, which is strong enough to make isolated shots of a galloping herd of horses genuinely stirring. Mayer never anthropomorphizes the horse, which remains a mysterious, beautiful animal; so much so that scenes that would otherwise be completely absurd (our hero dressing up as a man to enter a rodeo) turn out just fine. And if Tim McGraw can’t cut the mustard, Maria Bello provides a sure-handed assist as his wife.
This could surely have been a better film; in fact, I felt that Mayer had the chops to deliver one. And at the end of the day, it’s pretty much what you think it is — a fairly simplistic pseudo-coming-of-age tale aimed at pre-teen and young teenage girls, one that largely bows to convention and walks (gallops?) well-trod ground. I’m not sure how much appeal it holds outside of its niche, but when it’s good, it’s good.