It’s hard to watch 'Dream Horse' and not wonder if we’ve run out of interesting ways to tell an underdog sports narrative.
- 🐎 Every actor is on their game and giving their all.
- 🐎 The smattering of story arcs distracts from their shallow conventionality.
- 🐎 You've seen this movie before. It may not have been called 'Dream Horse,' but you've seen it.
- 🐎 The direction, though competent, is unremarkable.
Dream Horse, an underdog tale with horse racing as its sport of choice and the true story bone fides to back it up, seems to follow the ethos "If you're not going to do something new, at least do it well." The thing is, if you’ve seen the trailer for Dream Horse, you know exactly what you’re in for. Beat for beat, this film is predictable, safe, and not terribly concerned with being more than just another fine example of its genre. But there’s also a level of basic competency and passion for the material that leaves the film feeling earnest and heartfelt, so who’s to say that it hasn’t accomplished precisely what it intended.
Jan Vokes (Toni Collette) is a checkout clerk and bartender in her small Welsh village, caring for her aging father and supporting her husband Brian (Owen Teale). She becomes inspired to breed a racehorse, an expensive hobby that she hopes can breathe hope and meaning into a life that has grown stagnant and aimless. She convinces members of her village to form a syndicate, wherein every member pitches equal shares for the purchase and maintenance of the horse, whom they name Dream Alliance in honor of their shared vision. And then, as unlikely as it may seem, the horse actually turns out to be a strong competitor on the track.
Dream Horse offers a shotgun smattering of themes and motifs that are all too common in these sorts of underdog stories. The villagers’ relative poverty makes them stand out among the racing elites. Jan’s personal connection with Dream Alliance butts heads with the financial interests of fellow members of the syndicate. Brian rolls with Jan’s risky venture at the expense of his own autonomy in their marriage, which in turn exposes an underlying issue of Brian’s lack of motivation in his further aging. A fellow racing enthusiast (Damian Lewis) has a history of gambling and overinvestment in horses that threatens to destroy his marriage as he helps run the syndicate. An accident on the track might lead the dream horse to be taken away in a dream hearse.
All of these narrative conventions have been explored to death in other films of this genre, and it’s almost to screenwriter Neil McKay’s credit that the film doesn’t concern itself with just one or two hackneyed character arcs. There’s a deep sincerity to each performance and storyline, making this a comfortable watch despite its lack of challenging material or novel spin. If you’re looking to be inspired by a community projecting its hopes and dreams on a horse running in a circle real good, then your ticket price will be worth it, obviousness and predictability be damned.
Of course, there’s a double-edged sword to making such a conventional film. Though Dream Horse never aims higher than its expected trappings and achieves those modest heights, that doesn’t change the fact that goal is modest and the result is middling. It’s damningly faint praise to call Euros Lyn’s overall direction competent, as the filmmaking is so risk-averse as to make it unremarkable. It surely can’t be easy to stage and film horse races in a visually dynamic manner, so I don’t want to diminish the accomplishment of doing so, but there’s also no new ground being trodden here, no contribution to cinematic artform beyond just being another one of these.
This is just a longwinded way of saying that you’ll know whether Dream Horse is for you based on the synopsis alone. It’s a fine film, professionally and passionately made by a cast of relatable character actors to sell emotional and chuckle-worthy performances. (Karl Johnson as the village drunk is a particular comedic highlight.) But it’s hard to watch Dream Horse from a critical perspective and not wonder if we’ve run out of interesting ways to tell an underdog sports narrative. If we haven’t, we can only hope that some filmmakers somewhere are interested in taking the risk to break formula. They certainly didn’t do so here.
Dream Horse opens in theaters on May 21, 2021.
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