From the very moment it starts, there can be no doubt how “Dream Horse” is going to end. I don’t mean the story itself—although that, too, is in no doubt—I mean the movie itself. It is an absolute certainty that the movie, which is based on the true tale of a horse and an unlikely alliance of owners, will feature a glimpse of the real-life people (and horse) around which the story revolves. It is de rigueur.
Also de rigueur for such an underdog film is the presence of a setback. That is, a time will come when, just as things are going swimmingly, a stumbling block will appear and cause a problem. In this case that means that it will look as though the horse is going to do nothing but win, that they owners will be nothing but successful, and then… something happens. No, that’s not spoiling the movie to tell you that there’s a setback; see above, it’s de rigueur.
None of this is a slight in any way towards “Dream Horse.” Directed by Euros Lyn with a screenplay from Neil McKay, by and large the movie works. There is a risk when putting a true story on screen that a movie will simply check boxes (a look at the real people? check. a setback for the team? check.), but Lyn goes beyond the minimum requirements here in at least one crucially important way – the director as well as stars Toni Collette, Owen Teale, Damian Lewis, and the rest of the cast, impart a true sense of enthusiasm for the material.
There is a giddy exuberance to the majority of the movie, a gleam in the eyes of Jan Vokes (Collette) as she comes up with this seemingly insane idea to buy a mare and breed a race horse. There is a twinkle in the eye of her husband, Brian (Teale), as he comes to love this ridiculous plan. There is a shine in the eye of Howard Davies (Lewis), a former horse owner who gets sucked in to helping the Vokes with this ridiculous scheme. Everyone who winds up in the horse’s ownership group (for the mere price of 10 pounds a week!) has a similar sense about them. It’s impossible for the audience to not feel the same.
It is due to this sense of joy the film imparts that it is by and large successful. That excitement it offers, nearly by itself, overcomes the presence of all those check boxes we talked about before.
Sadly, those boxes are still present and do still detract. Those elements feel like purely standard pieces of such a underdog story. Make no mistake, I am not getting involved in the question of whether items like the slowly dying town in which the Vokes live are included simply because they are expected, or if they are there because they match the reality behind what we’re watching. That question, although potentially interesting, is not strictly relevant in such a review. After all, no one expects a movie based on a true story to be solely the truth behind the tale, that’s why it’s a movie “based” on a true story and not a “this is really and truly exactly what happened, word for word” tale. No, the crucial thing to understand is that true or not, they are all expected pieces of such a story.
“Dream Horse” is full of enthusiasm when it offers up the owners talking about Dream Alliance (which is what they name the horse), but the movie adds in all these other elements and then fails to explore any of them beyond the minimum requirements for including them in the first place. So much could be excised from the movie entirely without affecting it in any way. What the audience comes to care about here are the owners themselves and the horse. The rest seems like fluff that exists to meet expectations and pad things out.
When Lyn and company stay focused on the horse, either with the owners talking about the animal around a pool table or venturing to the race track, meeting the trainer, or doing anything else, “Dream Horse” is an absolute winner of a film. It offers a diverse group of characters, from a bar owner to the local drunk to an elderly woman with time on her hands, who buy into this dream notion. Watching their discussions and excitement/nerves about the horse as things either go well or poorly is fantastic. The rest, less so.
By the time those credits do roll and we get a look at the real people (and horse) behind this seemingly breeding and ownership plan, we’ve all become a part of the madness. Despite whatever portions of the film feel like required ones as opposed to inspired ones, we still find ourselves at the edge of our seats cheering on Dream Alliance as the horse struggles to pull ahead of the pack. It is because of that and because of the incredible sense of engagement Collette and the rest of the cast bring that “Dream Horse” goes beyond de rigueur to something far more special.
photo credit: Bleecker Street