Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story stars the miniature Meryl Streep we call Dakota Fanning as the daughter of a horse trainer (Kurt Russell) who helps nurse an injured filly all the way to the Breeder's Cup.
But before we go any further, let's give props to Chris Hewitt, the movie critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, for writing the single canniest thing ever written about the actress:
In his review of Uptown Girls, a comedy from a couple of years ago, Hewitt wrote that Fanning resembled a hard, pint-sized Nancy Reagan.
Yes, that's it exactly.
Those accusing eyes.
That supremely placid face.
The self-assurance, bordering on a very premature smugness.
Fanning, at age 11 and already a showbiz veteran, is so preternaturally cued to maturity and self-confidence, I'm not convinced audiences like her because she's this marvelous child actor. In fact, I'm not convinced people think any child who acts as a child, with real child thoughts and fears and responses, is much of an actor.
The kids we hail as unusually accomplished actors tend to be the kids who act the most unnatural and the least like children. That a young girl in a light Kentucky fantasy (albeit one "inspired by a true story") could have a gentle relationship with a wounded horse, feeding treats through the slats of the stable, suffering a few massive ruptures of innocence, and still come up with normal kid reactions, is not enough - she needs to act as if horse racing itself rested on her elementary-school shoulders.
One reason Dreamer works as well as it does is that it focuses so tightly and proceeds without any distracting subplots: Young Cale (Fanning) feels closer to her family the more she learns to make hard decisions about a horse with a long shot at ever paying off. Russell, who's done his share of kids pictures, is perfectly paired with Kris Kristofferson, who plays his father; and together they cut through the phony-baloneyness that mucks up your typical child-and-animal movie - it's almost as if, between takes, they decided to intentionally tear into whatever banality crept in. Along with the terrific Luis Guzman, who plays a ranch hand, they give Dreamer a shot of common sense whenever Elizabeth Shue, as Cale's mom, starts wistfully saying things like "Remember your dreams, Ben."
Basically, they remind us that horse racing is a business, and the reality is removed from the honey-baked uplift of a Disney movie - but those hard knocks lend genuine weight when the sentiment kicks in and the lump works its way into your throat.
At the press screening I attended, numerous grown men could be heard sniffling, especially during the rousing final stretch; I myself pretended I had dirt in my eye, but that's partly because I was thrilled Cale's horse didn't, as Seabiscuit did, get corny and come to represent innocence or hope or the dreams of a nation.
The even better reason Dreamer works, the reason it's one of the nicest surprises of the year, is that Fanning, finally, gets to behave like an 11-year-old - even if the script does have her waking at dawn to brew coffee for her horse's morning run around the track, picturesquely embroidered with drops of dew, surrounded by emerald country.
Nothing goes quite as well as Cale wishes. The cliches of every film like this creep up and then retreat, and director John Gatins wisely doesn't ask Fanning to reiterate what lesson she learned. Kids are not like that. A look between the actress and Russell is all you need to be knocked back, and nothing is even said: Having a dream can be as important as watching a dream come true.