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‘Dreamer’ is a feel-good family film

Strong performances raise this film above standard melodrama
/ Source: The Associated Press

Unabashed in its sentimentality and saddled with every imaginable horse-movie cliche, “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story” makes “Seabiscuit” look like a documentary.

And yet it feels like a higher echelon of feel-good family film, thanks to solid performances from a veteran cast that includes Kurt Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Elisabeth Shue, Luis Guzman, Ken Howard and Dakota Fanning.

Yes, we’ve included Fanning in that category, even though she’s just 11. Having performed for half her life and co-starring this year alone alongside Robert De Niro and Tom Cruise, she again shows she’s an actress of astonishing maturity and intelligence. There is no child-star cuteness with Fanning; she seems to lose herself instinctively in every role she plays, and she’s always natural, always believable.

She even manages to wring some genuine emotion from her scenes with Russell, who plays her father — scenes that could have been predictably melodramatic.

Predictability is the pervasive theme from John Gatins, who wrote the script and directs for the first time. (He previously wrote the by-the-numbers sports movies “Summer Catch,” “Hard Ball” and “Coach Carter.”)

Russell stars as longtime horse trainer Ben Crane, whose relationship with his family has been deteriorating as he loses pieces of his farm, bit by bit. Nevertheless, his daughter, Cale, wants to be just like him.

She gets her chance when a horse named Sonador — a filly called Sonya, for short — collapses during a race. Ben doesn’t have the heart to put the horse down in front of his daughter, so he reluctantly agrees to take it from its insensitive owner (played with two-dimensional villainy by David Morse).

Cale helps her dad nurse the filly’s broken leg back to health, which includes late-night visits to sneak Popsicles to the horse through slats in the barn wall. Her relationship with Sonador is undeniably sweet, and Fanning brings a tomboyish enthusiasm to the role that’s hard to resist. (The part originally was written for a boy; switching the character’s gender adds a touching father-daughter element to the movie.)

Sonador’s come-from-behind journey back to health and into the Breeder’s Cup — where she competes as the 80-1 longshot — includes many early mornings of training in the dewy sunrise and rides across rolling green hills, all of which is handsomely photographed.

The horse’s salvation naturally provides redemption for everyone who comes into contact with her, and there’s plenty to go around — for a father and his daughter; for a father and his own father (the crusty Kristofferson); for a husband and a wife (the underused Shue); and for the family business.

There’s also a retired jockey in need of a little inspiration. Freddy Rodriguez (from “Six Feet Under”) plays the diminutive Manolin, who was thrown and trampled during a race and literally has been unable to get back on that horse ever since.

“It’s God’s way of telling me no more racing,” the injured jockey says of his frequent nightmares.

But wouldn’t you know? Sonador means “Dreamer” in Spanish.