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Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 10/21/05 00:19:43

"Put Your Money On Russell & Fanning Across The Board"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Dreamer is so intent on letting us know that its based on a true story that its incorporated the infamous moniker into the title. Maybe that’s because on the surface, the story has all the familiar trappings of an underdog tale and an audience couldn’t possibly buy all of it without being reminded that some or all of it actually happened in some fashion before the license for drama was approved. Or maybe it’s because the word “inspired” is just too precious not to use. Past tense it may be but the inspiration comes in spades in the present thanks to solid work from two leads who could sell corn back to the Field of Dreams. Plus, who doesn’t love horseys?

Based very, very loosely on a true story, Kurt Russell stars as Ben Crane, a well-regarded horse trainer under the employment of stable owner, Palmer (David Morse in full-on smarmy evil mode). The care Ben pays to the horses under his care exceeds the time spent with young daughter, Cale (Dakota Fanning); a slight that wife Lily (Elisabeth Shue) frequently tries to amend. Ben reluctantly takes Cale to the track with him on the day that prize winning Sonador is running over his objections after “listening” to the horse. Down the stretch, Sonador goes down in such a spectacular fashion that it’s enough to traumatize a child for life. (It certainly made me gasp.) With the prospect of the horse being put down, Ben severs his ties to Palmer and buys Sonador from him and looks to nurse her back to health in hopes of putting her out to stud.

Cale develops a bond with the horse as any child would and after more bad news hits the family, Sonador miraculously heals well enough to possibly race again. We’re getting ahead of ourselves even though this turn of events is no doubt on your radar. Beyond his daughter issues, Ben has daddy issues with Pop Crane (Kris Kristofferson), after his attachment to their animals and unwillingness to part with them helped lose their own stable credibility. There’s also Ben’s employees depending on the success of their investment to satisfy their pro bono involvement – Balon (Luis Guzman) and Manolin (Freddy Rodriguez), the overweight former jockey who gave up after suffering a near fatal injury. Gutcheck to future directors out there. If you’re going to go through the trouble to buy the fat suit only to show it off beneath a tanktop – be sure to give us a shot later on of how fit the character looks after he sheds the necessary poundage. Or the suit.

There’s so much heart to Dreamer that you pinpoint its actual heart in just about any of the relationships. Not to mention enough dreams to fill two generations of Rip Van Winkles. Rodriguez’s jocket has such a propensity to dream and then share his dreams that you’ll wonder if the film is named after him. The horse is enough to touch anyone but this is a father/daughter story and having not just the professionalism but the natural believability that Russell and Fanning bring to their relationship is enough to put your money down at the window.

Plenty has been written about what a wunderkind Fanning is at such a young age and how her “old soul” sensibility is both marvelous and unsettling. Where in War of the Worlds this year she buckled down and became a scared little child, in Dreamer she has to grow up into her position as horse owner. Standing up before the board members of the Breeder’s Cup, Fanning is not only selling them confidence in her horse, but sells us on the confidence we have in her character to pull it off. As Ben and Cale grow closer through it all, Russell and Fanning only get better and pull us in further. In a beautiful reverse counterpart to a similar moment in Whale Rider, Ben stands up during parent/teacher night to read a story Cale has written about “a King and his magic horse.” It’s the emotional highpoint of the film and how Russell plays it reinforces the reminder that this guy must be given an Oscar some day and will give us a sense memory that will help us if we ever need a good cry.

Gatins certainly isn’t above manipulating his audience (he is the writer behind Hard Ball, Summer Catch and Coach Carter) and piles it on a bit thick with Rodriguez’s dreams and Morse’s over-the-top villain, who refers to the help as “Mexicans” and talks down to Cale in a way that has us clamoring for a Mr. Mom-style punch from Ben. The story is so far away from fact that insisting on its authenticity in the title is a bit calculating right off the top. (The real Sonador, Mariah’s Storm, did break-and-heal and won a few races, but finished ninth in the big race.) Dreamer makes (and breaks) no bones about being a classic underdog story and if Rudy can take certain liberties, why not a horse? Where there’s no question of a photo finish is in how we care less about the outcome of the big race and more about how that race brought Ben & Cale together again. You go, horsey!

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