Audiences will inevitably let loose an enthusiastic whinny for Dream Horse. This underdog tale—or, rather, dark horse saga—is a true crowd-pleaser. Dream Horse dramatizes the true story of a group of Welsh villagers who united to raise a racehorse. The horse, named Dream Alliance, and the co-op had their story told in the 2015 documentary Dark Horse. The doc won the Audience Award at Sundance making room for an inevitable adaptation. While the doc is thrilling stuff, this kind of rousing and inspirational story works wonders as a drama. Sure, we’ve seen many films like Dream Horse before, but it gamely trots a winning formula.
Directed by Euros Lyn and written by Neil McKay, Dream Horse knows exactly what kind of movie it is. It’s light feel-good entertainment that unabashedly milks its based-on-a-true-story credence for an extra tug at the heartstrings. It helps, too, that Toni Collette carries nearly every frame of the film with a down-to-earth performance. Collette plays Jan Vokes, a downtrodden woman juggling two jobs in her working class Welsh town of Cefn Fforest. Working days at the supermarket and nights at the pub, Jan is stuck in a rut and she knows it. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that her husband, Brian (Owen Teale), is an out-of-work couch potato. Like many of the villagers, unemployment has hit the county hard. People in the village live a routine cycle of work-pub-work-pub-work-pub-work. It’s depressing and Jan takes the reigns of her community with a shrewd plan.
Jan invites the villagers to join her in a horse race alliance. She has little experience with horses, but is an ace at raising prize-winning geese and ducks. However, while pulling pints at the pub, she hears a local accountant, Howard (Damian Lewis), talking about the fortunes to be won at the races. Jan proposes that the villagers cobble some money together and raise a racehorse. The villagers are skeptical, but welcome the challenge. The grey hue of Dream Horse lifts almost miraculously as the villagers make the pact.
Raising the foal gives meaning to each day for Jan and Brian. As Jan admits, rather tearfully, she needed a reason to get up in the morning. Moreover, Dream Alliance becomes a rallying point for the town as he begins to train and enter competitions. In true inspirational movie fashion, the villages huddle around TVs in shop windows and store aisles. Dream Alliance is all of them: their hope, spirit, and second chance on hooves.
An Unabashedly Feel Good Film
Dream Horse follows in the tradition of amiable British comedies like Waking Ned Devine and Calendar Girls. Its light and heartfelt humour doesn’t win laughs at the expense of its characters and their humble settings. Rather, it draws inspiration from them and offers an ensemble of relatable salt-of-the-earth people who are easy to root for. (Karl Johnson is especially fun as the local drunk Kerby.) Collette creates a heartfelt anchor to the alliance, too, with Lyn holding on Jan’s reactions through Dream Alliance’s highs and lows on the track. Cinematographer Erik Wilson also captures the races with an engaging gallop to convey the adrenaline rush that comes with every hurdle on the track. They’re an apt metaphor for the hurdles that Jan and the Alliance face daily.
The story admittedly unfolds predictably with Dream Alliance coming up short, but eventually rising in the ranks. Even though one can spot all the turns before they happen, there is something warmly reassuring about Dream Horse’s familiarity. The film’s a reminder that dark clouds lift and that strength comes through adversity. The sense of community spirit in Dream Horse is irresistible after a year-and-half of isolation and removal from community. Cheese is its key ingredient.