A girl and her horse outrun the formula

Posted: October 21, 2005

Dakota Fanning looks tired and worried in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. Her appearance could be attributable to the 11-year-old's daunting workload, starring in one pic on top of another opposite Hollywood's A-list - Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Sean Penn - over the last few years.

Then again, it could be just the latest example of Fanning's preternatural abilities to emote. In Dreamer, a charming girl-and-her-horse yarn, she plays Cale Crane, the daughter of broke (and broken) Kentucky horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell), who bets everything on a filly with a bad leg. Things are so dire at the Crane ranch that they don't have any horses there, and Mom (Elisabeth Shue) has to work as a waitress to help out with the bills. Even on a good tip night, it's not enough.

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 Soador, the horse with the career-ending injury.

Russell's character, Ben, has acquired Soador, 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 Soador 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 Soador 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 Soador'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 srea@phillynews.com.

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

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