The second girl-and-her-horse tale in as many years, "Flicka" is slightly less bland than "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story
" but every bit as saccharine and predictable. Both are not only family dramas about a human-equine friendship, but are father-daughter stories as well, in which a rocky relationship turns to one of love and eventual understanding. Neither one, however, is quite able to capture that magical feeling that comes with the special bond between a person and an animal. The horse of the title doesn't seem to love her owner so much as she just learns to tolerate her more than everyone else.
16-year-old daydreamer Katy McLaughlin (Alison Lohman) arrives home to her family's Wyoming horse ranch for the summer with bad news that she's dreading telling parents Rob (Tim McGraw) and Nell (Maria Bello): she is in danger of being kicked out of the exclusive private school she attends after flunking her final exam. For Katy, it isn't such a big deal; she is a smart, vivacious, strong-willed young woman who knows her heart and destiny lie with the ranch. While riding one of her horses, Katy discovers a wild black mustang that scares off a cougar on the hunt. Determined to tame the beast, Katy names the mustang Flicka and works on building trust between herself and the horse. Rob, on the other hand, sees things differently. Suspecting that Flicka is a potential danger to his daughter's safety, he sells her to a nearby fair. For Katy, giving up Flicka isn't an option.
Directed by Michael Mayer (2004's "A Home at the End of the World
") and loosely based on the 1941 children's novel "My Friend Flicka" by Mary O'Hara, "Flicka" is an adamantly old-fashioned family pic that wears its heart on the outside of its chest and never met a cliché it didn't like. The meeting between girl and animal; the training episodes; the conflict that tears them apart; the entrance into a horse competition; the injury that might or might not lead to the death of the horse; the heated confrontation between parent and child; and the dad that finally comes aroundall of these moldy plot conventions and more are available for the taking in "Flicka."
A movie with an antiquated story is, indeed, possible to do well; just because one knows where things are leading doesn't mean he or she cannot enjoy it as a comfortable, undemanding entertainment. Unfortunately, director Michael Mayer and screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner (2003's "Mona Lisa Smile
") lay it on thicker than a bowl of pancake syrup. Katy's declaration that she and Flicka are the same is cute at first but then nonsensical and sappy when she begins equating herself and the mustang as "us," as if hurting one will mean reciprocal harm to the other. Additionally, the father-daughter plot thread is effective only when it's not being blatantly melodramatic, and a laughable climactic illness for Katy, who gets sick from sitting out in the warm summer rain for an hour or so, is one of those ailments that people only can get in the movies. When one character says to another, "I think her fever is finally breaking," laughing as a response is unavoidable. Is this the 19th century or the 21st? Katy's Dell laptop, lavishly displayed in one scene, would argue the latter, but then why ever would she write an essay freehand in a tablet?
Alison Lohman (2003's "Matchstick Men
") is a lovely actress whose natural intelligence and unconventional beauty set her apart from the crop of young interchangeable performers. At 27 years of age, she isn't an ideal choice to play the 16-year-old Katy, but Lohman mostly pulls it off by still looking younger. Only when Katy is required to resort to more childlike ways does Lohman hit an awkward note as her true age and maturity squeaks out. Maybe the best relationship in the film is one that audiences won't be expectingthat between Katy and older brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten). Katy and Howard interact like honest-to-goodness siblings who, refreshingly, confide in each other rather than fight and bicker nonstop. When Katy tearfully confesses that she doesn't want college-bound Howard to leave her, it is a genuinely touching moment that doesn't feel prefabricated or manipulative.
29-year-old Ryan Kwanten (TV's now-defunct "Summerland") is a winning presence as Howard and not a bad looker either, but he is horribly miscast as the biological son of 38-year-olds Tim McGraw (2004's "Friday Night Lights
") and Maria Bello (2006's "World Trade Center
"). When acting against his screen parents, this slim age difference is all the more obvious; Kwanten virtually looks the same age as them. Here's a novel idea: in the future, cast a 20-year-old actor to play a 20-year-old, and a 16-year-old actress to play a 16-year-old, rather than performers a decade older than the parts they are portraying. Finally, Tim McGraw and Maria Bello excel as parents Rob and Nell, authenticating a real and loving marriage that isn't without a few bumps.
"Flicka" is attractively photographed by J. Michael Muro (2005's "Roll Bounce
"), with the sweeping green valleys, fields and mountains of New Zealand standing in for Wyoming, and has a memorable soundtrack of appropriately placed country and pop ballads on its soundtrack. The banal and frequently over-the-top treatment of the story is a different matter, overstepping itself with hackneyed developments when a low-key approach would have been better. More than anything, without the palpable and enduring sense of true friendship between Katy and the ill-tempered Flicka that would make their kindred bond worth fighting for, the film crumbles. For horse enthusiasts, "Flicka" will no doubt delight and entertain. For everyone else, it's an unnecessary screen adaptation with the stilted tone of a picture made in the 1940s.