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‘Flicka’ is a by-the-numbers family flick

Girl-meets-horse story is sweet but has no surprises. The dull dialogue and predictable action corrals the actors.  By David Germain
/ Source: The Associated Press

At the rate she’s going, Alison Lohman should be ready to step up to ingenue roles about the time she turns 40.

Her girlishness intact at 27, Lohman stars as a spirited teen who tames a spirited horse in “Flicka,” a paint-by-numbers update of Mary O’Hara’s children’s book “My Friend Flicka,” previously filmed in 1943.

Lohman, who well into her 20s credibly came off as a teen in “White Oleander” and “Matchstick Men,” looks and acts like an eternal youth as 16-year-old Katy McLaughlin, who names the wild mustang she adopts Flicka, Swedish for “pretty girl.”

The “pretty girl” analogy is played to the hilt in this new version that changes the sex of O’Hara’s young male hero. And in case no one notices how pretty a girl Lohman is as she rides along, the flimsy characters in Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner’s script miss few chances to tell us how pretty she is.

After a solid debut with 2004’s thoughtful character piece “A Home at the End of the World,” featuring Colin Farrell and Robin Wright Penn, director Michael Mayer is stuck with stick figures of the Western spirit on “Flicka.”

Lohman’s Katy is a dreamy homebody who would love to just hang around her family’s Wyoming ranch and play with the horses. For no clear reason, her father (country singer Tim McGraw) wants his little darling to get out of Dodge, go to college and do something else with her life.

As the story opens, Katy comes home for summer on the verge of flunking out of her costly boarding school. Katy and dad immediately start dueling over her future, while mom (Maria Bello) and brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten) play referee.

Then Katy finds a wild mustang wandering the mountains around the ranch. Katy connects with her Flicka, but her father thinks the mustang is dangerous (characters constantly remind us “that horse is truly loco”) and wants to sell it to a rodeo promoter.

The filmmakers pile on storms, angry words, deceptions and a mountain lion that appears at just the right moments to punctuate the relationship between girl and horse and girl and dad.

Cinematographer J. Michael Muro, who also shot Kevin Costner’s Western “Open Range,” captures some gorgeous panoramas of plains and mountains. But for his syrupy musical score, Aaron Zigman sounds as if he borrowed licks from every Western he’s ever seen.

The dull dialogue and predictable action corrals the actors. Lohman’s blandly cute and mischievous (at one point Katy hides behind fake chin stubble to disguise herself as a boy, Lohman weirdly looking like Johnny Depp’s little brother). But her character at times seems as loco as Flicka, Katy’s mildly demented air clashing with the sweet family tone the filmmakers aim for.

This is strange turf for Bello, a queen of dark, edgy films such as “The Cooler” and “A History of Violence.” Bello manages to infuse some warmth and sly humor, but her character is just another of Hollywood’s superficially written moms.

After a worthy film debut as a nasty dad in the football flick “Friday Night Lights,” McGraw is tightly reined in “Flicka,” a dull stone face even in his testy confrontations with Lohman. McGraw mugs through a climactic close-up alongside Lohman with such self-consciousness, he looks like a smirking cowboy about to break into song in a country-music video.

In fact, not long after, he does break into song over the closing credits with a tune titled “My Little Girl” — a sign of the happy trail down which “Flicka” is headed.