When a horse lives through trauma, like Belle has, it scars her. It takes time to trust. To heal. To flourish again.
Turns out things aren’t much different for humans. Just ask Will Brown.
Will may not technically deserve the title “former country singer.” He hasn’t formally retired. But in the wake of losing his beloved wife, Claire, one stormy night two years ago—while she was riding Belle—that description is a fair one. Isolation—physical, relational and spiritual—has frozen Will into a hardened shell of the man he once was.
His 14-year-old daughter, Ellie, wants her grieving father to move on. And Ellie wants to ride Belle, who’s been wild and spooked since that fateful night, more than she wants anything else in the world. But her grief-paralyzed dad won’t have it.
“I can’t take the thought of you riding her, and you know the reason. So why would you even ask that of me,” Will tells Ellie.
“‘Cause she’s the only part of mama I have left!” Ellie stubbornly says in response.
Claire and Will’s two younger sons, Nile and Noah, are ready to move forward, too. As are Sadie and Eric, a retired couple who help run the household and the huge Texas ranch where Will’s family has lived for three generations.
But movement for Will seems glacially slow to those around him. That’s when Ellie takes matters into her own hands, calling a horse-training specialist in Houston to drive up and spend a couple of weeks with Belle to help rehabilitate her.
What Sam Lynn finds when she arrives at the Brown family’s Moonrise Christmas Ranch in dusty Blanco, Texas, is not only a horse in need of rehabilitation, but an entire family scarred by the horrible events of that stormy night.
And it’s going to take some time for them—for Will, especially—to learn how to trust, how to heal, how to flourish again.
How do we let go of the losses that threaten to undo us? That’s the question at the core of Moonrise. For much of this film, Will Brown is trapped in his grief, unable to let go of his wife’s memory; unable and unwilling to move on, even as everyone around him encourages Will to do.
Ellie, especially, strives to help her dad see that he’s gripped his grief long enough. Not only is it OK to let it go, he needs to for the sake of his family. When Will tells his daughter, tearfully, “I can’t forgive myself,” she pushes back and says that she not only lost her mother that day, but her father, too. “We lost you when we needed you most,” she tells him. “We need you to come back to us.”
Similarly, Eric and Sadie gently try to prod Will to see that he needs to begin to relinquish his pain for the sake of his children.
As for Sam, she quickly realizes that she’s walked into a family that’s as broken as the horse she’s been hired to rehabilitate. She takes Will’s stubborn, taciturn resistance in stride as he gradually opens up to her, and as their relationship gradually crosses into romantic territory.
Will, understandably, has a hard time letting go of the memory of his wife. But everyone around him understands that it needs to happen if he’s to move meaningfully forward with his career and in his relationship with Sam.
Occasional visual and verbal references to faith pop up throughout the film. Sadie takes the boys, Nile and Noah, to church, though Will himself has been unwilling to go since Claire’s death. (And the same has been true of Ellie, too.)
Eventually, almost all of them make it to a church service where we hear the hymn “Amazing Grace” being sung. Will himself sits in the parking lot, still unable to make that step at that point.
There are passing references to the difficulty of trusting God when we’ve experienced a great loss. But the film doesn’t spend too much time expounding upon that theme.
That said, Will and Ellie do have a conversation late in the film about Will’s guilt that he should have been there the night Claire died. That discussion revolves around the importance of forgiving ourselves when we feel that we’ve failed.
As noted above, Will and Sam’s slow-burn romance is a big part of the story here. There are longing looks and a single kiss, Hallmark-style, about two minutes before the final credits.
A major part of the plot also has to do with Will gradually realizing that moving on to a new relationship with someone else after his wife’s death is a choice that he’s free to make.
Will and Sam fall asleep together one night in the barn while tending to a newborn calf, but that scene isn’t sexual and they haven’t even formally declared their interest in one another yet. Noah asks Nile if he thinks anything happened, and Nile is incredulous at the notion, quipping, “What do you think they did, play spin the bottle?”
Sam’s on-again, off-again boyfriend turns up at one point to complicate things momentarily.
Nile has a young romantic interest of his own. Both Noah and and Ellie suggest that the girl is just using Nile because of his famous dad, but he sarcastically responds that he doesn’t mind being used.
The story obviously revolves around the loss of Will’s wife, Claire, two years before. Eventually, we hear the details of the accident that claimed her life while riding Belle (something that’s alluded to for much of the film before eventually being spelled out).
Both Will and Ellie have some bumps and bruises after being thrown from horses in separate scenes.
At school, Ellie is accosted by two mean girls making accusations about her dad, given his gossip-worthy isolation and unkempt appearance in town one day. Ellie and one of the girls get into a fist fight (which we don’t see). But we do see her with an ice pack on her cheek and learn that both she and the other girl received three-day suspensions from school for the fight.
The closest we get to any bad language is when one of Will’s boys exclaims “Oh, heck no!”
None, really. That said, when Will’s in town one day, quite disheveled and depressed, he’s unwilling to take selfies with a pair of moms whose girls go to school with Ellie. Later, those girls tell Ellie that their moms were wondering if Will was drinking or on drugs.
Moonrise splits the difference between the spiritual themes we typically see in most Christian movies and the romantic variety that show up in virtually every Hallmark movie.
Now, depending on where you’re coming from, that might not sound like a particularly ringing endorsement.
But stay with me.
Moonrise, streaming on the faith-based service Pure Flix, isn’t on anyone’s radar for awards season. It’s not likely to turn up on anyone’s best-of lists for the year.
Still, here’s the thing: This is a really nice movie. I mean that sincerely. Other than the issue of a mom dying tragically (which we don’t see, but only hear about briefly), there’s no content to be concerned with here at all. No graphic sexual interludes. No profanity. No grisly violence. No grimly nihilistic worldviews. Nope, none of that stuff.
Just a good, old-fashioned story about love, loss and redemption that, quite frankly, I think the whole family really could enjoy. The kind of movie that Hollywood knew how to make a generation ago, but has largely forgotten is even a possibility these days. At the risk of being dubbed a sentimental softie, I even shed a tear or two in a couple of spots along the way.
I should also mention that Christian country singer Granger Smith (whom I recently talked to on our weekly podcast, The Plugged In Show) absolutely nails the part of a grieving, isolated man trying to make sense of his life.
If you enjoy Hallmark-style romances or Christian movies with gentle stories of hope and redemption, you’ll likely find Moonrise to be two hours well spent.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.