Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

(2005) ** 1/2 Pg
98 min. DreamWorks. Director: John Gatins. Cast: Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson, Elisabeth Shue, David Morse.

Seems like a movie just isn't complete these days without the appellation "Based on a True Story" or "Inspired by a True Story" or "This is a True Story." Though the DreamWorks release Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story doesn't manage the latest trick of putting the real-life subject on screen (see The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio and Domino for the most recent examples), writer-director John Gatins' family movie takes the cake by putting its "reality" claim in its title.

Of course, no narrative movie is a true story, per se, and a case can be made that no documentary film tells a completely true story, either. Nevertheless, film experts (and lawyers) long ago learned the difference between "Based on" and "Inspired by" a true story. Though Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story takes inspiration from the actual racehorse Mariah's Storm (the miraculous racehorse that made an unprecedented recovery from a broken leg), the story is 90% genuine, American-made hooey.

Dreamer is 100% canny, though, aiming its triumphant coming-of-age drama (complete with horses!) at little girls and their captive-audience fathers. Kurt Russell plays Ben Crane, a horse trainer with emotional damage from a past defeat. Now the hired hand to jerky racehorse owner Palmer (David Morse), Ben hears the whispers of prize horse Soñador and advises that she sit out a race. When Palmer will have none of it, Soñador breaks her leg. Answering the pleas of his daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning), Ben adopts the injured Soñador, which he needs like the hole in the head he spared her.

Of course, Ben needs healing, too, and his plucky daughter, resilient horse, and estranged, leather-faced pappy (Kris Kristofferson) teach him the requisite life lessons. Anyone who has ever seen a family movie or a sports movie (like Coach Carter or Hard Ball, both penned by Gatins) can guess how it all turns out, but Gatins nearly pulls it off with the help of pro actors: workhorse Russell and little filly Fanning.

If Dreamer isn't terribly exciting, Gatins picks up steam in the home stretch (when it counts). Just try, however, to shake the memory of the breeding scene, in which Fanning gives the stud a once-over. "Grand Slam?" she utters, widening her eyes like SpongeBob SquarePants. "Unbelievable."

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