Ben is estranged from craggy old Pop Crane (craggy old Kris Kristofferson), his dad and Cale's granddad - a retired horse trainer who lives across the property but hardly talks to his son.
In the tradition of National Velvet and The Black Stallion, however, Dreamer is done in a way that doesn't pile on the corn, or the manure. Fanning's washed-out, sleepless look has something to do with that: She's been staying up late and sneaking off to the barn to feed lollipops to Soador, the horse with the career-ending injury.
Russell's character, Ben, has acquired Soador, which means dreamer in Spanish, from its owner as severance pay. Ben was fired, or he quit, depending on how you look at it. In any case, the horse isn't likely to race again, but maybe, just maybe, he can bring Soador back to health and make some money putting the thoroughbred out to stud.
Nicely run through its paces by John Gatins, who also wrote the screenplay (it's his directing debut), Dreamer is, not surprisingly, about daring to dream the big dreams. It's about family, and faith, and facing hard times together. Shot in the splendid horse country of Kentucky (not far from Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown), and featuring some galloping races both on and off the track (Cale and Soador take off across the fields one fateful day), the movie is just hokey enough to pull at the heartstrings without making you feel as if you've been worked over by a thug wielding a club made of cotton candy.
It's Fanning's show (and the horse's), but Russell, who began his own career about the same age as his little leading lady (he was a contract player at Disney at 10), does a nice job as the horseman who has to rediscover his trust in his own abilities - and reconnect with his daughter and his father. Freddy Rodriguez and Luis Guzman are the jockey and the groom, respectively - members of the Cranes' extended gang of hard-luck folks. The two are also the object of racist barbs by Soador's imperious former owner, a caricature creep played by David Morse.
Like any self-respecting underdog (or underhorse) sports pic, Dreamer has its formulas, its familiar ups and downs. But it's to Fanning's and Russell's credit, and the filmmakers', that the formula never gets the better of the film.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea
at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story
*** (out of four stars)
Produced by Brian Robbins and Mike Tollin, written and directed by John Gatins, photography by Fred Murphy, music by John Debney, distributed by DreamWorks Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 mins.
Cale Crane. . . Dakota Fanning
Ben Crane. . . Kurt Russell
Lilly. . . Elisabeth Shue
Pop. . . Kris Kristofferson
Manolin. . . Freddy Rodriguez
Parent's guide: PG (adult themes, profanity)
Playing at: area theaters