Sometimes you just need two hours to feel good watching a movie. You don’t need nomination-worthy performances, or spectacular scenery, or even an above average screenplay. Every once in a while, all you need is a couple of decent laughs and a formulaic plot to make you smile. That’s what we get with Dream Horse, finally getting its wide release after debuting at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a simple story about simple people and a relatively simple horse. But the movie thrives in that simplicity, giving us a thoroughly enjoyable, if predictable, bit of light treacle and comedy. It’s pure comfort food, and that’s just fine, mostly because the film echoes the stakes of its plot.
Set at the turn of the 21st century in a small Welsh town, the film recounts the true story of Dream Alliance, a champion thoroughbred horse bred and trained by a syndicate made up of the townsfolk, led by former pigeon racer and current barmaid Jan Vokes (an excellent Toni Collette), her husband Brian (Owen Teale, aka Alliser Thorne from Game of Thrones), and tax accountant Howard Davies (Damian Lewis). Framed as a chance to unite the town and give the protagonists a renewed sense of hope, the three form a joint group with all the quirky people around them, from a butcher to a bartender to the hapless-yet-hilarious town drunk (Karl Johnson). The idea is that everyone chips in 10 pounds a week to cover the expense of buying a mare, getting it sired, and raising and training the resulting foal until it can race and earn the group a profit. Jan, whose children have grown and moved out, experiences a bit of empty nest syndrome along with her mid-life crisis, and thus sees Dream as her own child, and is as such maternally protective.
There’s a massive David v. Goliath vibe to the story, as this ragtag group of Welshmen disrupt the hoity-toity world of the Sport of Kings. From the moment they try to breed their mare, the upper crust looks down on them, either with bemused surprise or outright disdain. The stud keeper is incredulous that they’d breed an older mare, but bites his tongue once they produce the breeding fee. The trainer they seek out, Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell), initially mocks the horse until it shows some potential. When Dream gets his first win, a more wealthy breeder immediately tries to buy it, presumably to consolidate his profits, but also to rid the Owner’s Box of the unwashed masses.
It’s laid on pretty thick, but honestly, if you’ve ever lived in a figurative (or in this film’s case, literal) one-horse town, you’ve definitely felt the sense of ennui and fatalism that Jan and the other townsfolk experience. Typically, there are only three outcomes to such a situation. One, you move out. Two, you accept the provincial life and cope with it. Three, you do what you can to improve the town, be it from a business, morale, or cosmetic angle. That’s the path that Jan and her syndicate chose, and having grown up in small town America, there’s a certain bit of civic pride in seeing them try their hand.
And yes, some of the sentiment is a bit trite. It gets a little too melodramatic when Jan complains about the rut her life has gotten into, and the idea that Davies is somehow a gambling addict who nearly lost everything really doesn’t land. The scene where Jan comes up with the name for Dream Alliance is so cheesy and cliché that it might as well be ripped straight out of the sports movie trope handbook.
But the film works because the whole affair is kept within its realistic sphere. This isn’t some rags-to-riches tale of a town becoming wealthy off of a thoroughbred, it’s a story about a town coming together for something just a touch bigger than themselves, and having a new sense of purpose because of it. It’s all relatively low-stakes all things considered, and because of that, we in the audience can just sit back and enjoy a welcoming sense of intimacy that makes you feel like you’re part of the team. You laugh at Kerby’s drunken shenanigans. You care about Jan and Brian’s marriage. You become attached emotionally to Dream, particularly after an injury that actually happened to the real-life horse. But in the end, this is still just a bunch of friends and neighbors coming together for a common goal, and that very easy nature lets you know that if it all goes tits up, they still have each other.
That said, the film does go a little above the minimum effort to make sure that this snug affair rises just above the chaff. For one, eternal kudos to Toni Collette’s dialect coach, helping her nail the Welsh accent. It’s very hard to pull off, because one slip and you drift into a Scottish voice, or something resembling Manchester if you’re not careful. However much work went into it, it paid off and then some!
Also, the actual staging of the horse races is superb. Dream Alliance was a hurdles racer, which involves running on grass and jumping ramps covered in brush. A lot of times you’ll see a horse stumble or fall, taking itself and its jockey out of contention, and in severe cases it can lead to euthanasia on the track itself. The combination of cinematography, sound design, and visual effects to create a very lifelike and intense set of races for Dream is very well done indeed. It was reminiscent of Seabiscuit, but without the prestige air about itself. And of course, you can’t have these scenes without expert animal wranglers on the set going well above and beyond the call of duty to make the horse action seem as natural as possible.
This is what makes for a perfectly pleasant feel-good film. It’s sweet, funny, and aspires to nothing more than it already is. A few superlative technical elements aid the experience, but what really sells it is the small-scale relationships among the humans raising this horse together. While it likely wouldn’t have been as exciting or dramatic in the appropriate places, this is a film where the same message could get across without ever seeing Dream Alliance in action. The bond between Jan and her friends, as well as their horse, is what makes this the type of movie that’ll put a smile on your face despite its flaws. It’s easy-going fluff, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you like movies about horses? Have you ever won money on a horse race? Let me know!