Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story
Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story is a perfect example of how you can't judge a book by its cover. Or more precisely, you can't judge a movie by its publicized plot. On the surface it seems that this is just one more come-from-behind horse story, and it scarcely registered on my radar—before I saw it. Afterwards, I couldn't get Dreamer off my mind.
The narrative begins with racehorse trainer Ben Crane losing his job. One of the horses he's responsible for, Soñador, breaks her leg during a race, and her owner fires Ben in the aftermath. His severance includes the injured equine. Not that that's much consolation since a broken-down racehorse in Kentucky is worth little more than a tidy pile of hay.
Ben and his family, which consists of his wife (Lilly), his 10-year-old daughter (Cale) and his father (Pop), live on what's left of a rambling horse farm, run into the ground by a series of unlucky breaks and a touch of bad blood between Pop and Ben. Now that Ben is jobless, the prospects for keeping what little is left are bleak. But Ben's not about to give up. He hatches a plan to breed the well-sired Soñador and sell her colt. Cale has other plans, however. She wants to race Soñador. But, of course, that's just a silly, little-girl fantasy. Right?
Dads, don't let your daughters grow up without spending lots and lots and lots of time with them. And if you have to buy a racehorse to make that happen, then sell everything you own and do so! That's the finish line for Dreamer, and it's a point that infuses every inch of its track. "This movie has a lot of themes," says writer and director John Gatins. "It's about a horse; it's about horse racing; it's about a young girl. But if I had to pick one thing, I would say it's about family. ... Family is what counts. It's the most important thing."
The film's other strong message is implied in its title—a translation of Soñador's name. It's to hold on to your dreams, and give everything you've got in their pursuit. Don't give up. Don't give in. And yet, it's made clear that fulfilling your dreams does not mean winning at all costs. Ben, for instance, cares more about his horses' wellbeing than whether they win or lose. And he extends the same courtesy to his family members.
Faced with foreclosure, Ben fights hard to provide for his family. Faced with losing her horse and the chance to see her race, Cale steps up and assumes the role of owner. (Among other grown-up type things she does is plead her horse's case to a racing selection panel.) Then, in a touching and poignant scene, overwhelmed with the weight of the tasks set in front of her, Cale asks her dad for help.
Ben and Pop work hard to smooth out some of the bumps in their often strained relationship. Mom gently but firmly pushes Ben toward his daughter when he needs a shove or two ("I'll work seven days a week at the diner if it means you'll spend time with your daughter," she says). Ben seeks Cale's forgiveness when he wrongs her ("I made mistakes, Cale, I'm sorry"). He affirms his wife ("You're smart and beautiful"). And he lays into his old boss when the man belittles two Mexican workers, informing him, in no uncertain terms, that the men have names.
Jockey Manolin (known as Manny) kisses his necklace (in a gesture that has Catholic overtones) right before a big race. He says that at night he dreams about racing, and that when they turn into nightmares they are "God's way of telling me no more racing." When he has a good dream, he claims God wants him to try out the track again.
None. Terms such as "stud," "teaser" and "breeder" are tossed around, but only within the context of fathering foals.
Footage of Soñador breaking her leg includes images of her jockey falling to the ground and almost getting trampled by other horses. Showing off his scars, Manny tells Cale about the time he was thrown during a race. In the non-violent-but-still-scary category, Cale finds herself atop a runaway horse. (Dad rescues her.)
Crude or Profane Language
Ben and Pop both swear. They don't do it much, but when they do it's usually during an emotionally charged scene, and their words are inescapable—there's no way young ears might miss them. All told, "h---" and "d--n" are said a total of about six times. God's name is interjected a couple of times. Pop mentions "horse squat."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Woven inextricably into the fabric of the horse-racing culture is gambling. Thus, a couple of lighthearted comments are made about betting on the ponies. And Ben puts $257 down on Soñador's big race.
Confronted by the racing panel with her need to pay $40,000 to gain entrance into the big race, Cale half fibs, half jokes, telling them "the check is in the mail." In one scene, she sets out to run away from home after overhearing Dad talking about how he wouldn't be in such a bind if it weren't for Soñador—and that he wouldn't own Soñador if it weren't for Cale. (She doesn't get far.)
"I spent a lot of time walking around Kentucky taking pictures and going to visit horse farms," John Gatins told Plugged In Online. "I really wanted to capture the essence of this world because my goal was to make a classic movie. I wanted to be reminded of the movies that I had seen as a kid because people don’t really make live action, family drama movies anymore. When I take my kids to the movies it’s The Incredibles, which is an amazing movie, but it’s animated and comedy and fast and furious. ... It’s satisfying for me to sit through Dreamer with a young audience and hear them hanging in there and getting excited when Dakota [Fanning] takes over the movie."
Miss Fanning does indeed take over this movie. Entertainment Weekly reports that co-star Kurt Russell was so impressed with her performance that he told Gatins, "I guarantee you, [Dakota] is the best actress I will work with in my entire career." High praise from a man who has shared screen time with Oscar-winner Meryl Streep.
Good acting is hard to appreciate, though, if a film's script isn't up to par. If Gatins (who contributed to the screenplays for Summer Catch, Hardball and Coach Carter) hadn't handed Dakota and Co. a reasonably well-crafted story to keep them from chewing up the scenery, I really don't think Russell would have been making such grand gestures afterward. For me, it boiled down to this: It's refreshing to watch a family movie that doesn't pander.
All too often well-intentioned films inject characters who flail about with unnatural wackiness in an effort to create diversions for young viewers. Thus, stories are sometimes driven into the ground with senseless subplots and silly shenanigans. Dreamer, rather, aims to draw in young minds by empowering them. At a crucial point in the story, Cale is given control of Soñador, and we watch with bated breath as the young girl strives to rise to the occasion. What would I do if I were her? That's the question sure to resonate in kids' minds. It's a great question, and it provides plenty of opportunity for family discussion afterward.
So, despite its macro-plot similarities to the likes of Seabiscuit, Dreamer ends up, to its benefit, charting its own path, and it does so with grace and style. Its panoramic views of Kentucky are breathtaking. Its pacing is gentle and down-to-earth, but never boring. Its casting is ideal. (The story was originally written with a boy in mind; Dakota changed all that.) Its characters are believable and compelling. And even with its handful of mild profanities, it's as wholesome a movie as I've seen in a very long time—say, since The Black Stallion roamed theater screens.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Kurt Russell as Ben Crane; Dakota Fanning as Cale Crane; Kris Kristofferson as Pop Crane; Elisabeth Shue as Lilly Crane; Luis Guzmán as Balon; Freddy Rodriguez as Manolin
John Gatins ( )