BY NOA LEIBSON
Dream Horse is a film directed by Euros Lyn, scheduled to release in the USA May 1st. As the title suggests, it’s a horse movie but also one that tells a true story. First shown at the Sundance Film Festival, Dream Horse tells the story of Dream Alliance, a thoroughbred bred by a bartender and owned by a 23 person syndicate, who went on to have a hugely successful racing career.
As a thoroughbred fanatic and former racehorse owner, I was both excited and skeptical to view this film. It comes at a time when equestrian films have been scrutinized for following the same tropes like the ‘ferocious horse only trusts one person’ or a classic come from behind story. Even though there are great horse films, there are far more that have followed the same formula and been underwhelming. Plus, Dream Alliance’s real-life career was incredibly unlikely. He was one of the biggest feel-good stories one could ask for in racing, which made me wonder if the film would get the same classic treatment. Yet despite this framework and the critical eye on equestrian films, Dream Horse is not only an amazing horse movie—it’s a great movie altogether.
The screenplay by Neil McKay features several A-listers amongst the cast. Oscar-nominated Toni Colette stars as Jan Vokes, the bartender and mastermind behind Dream Alliance, and other notables include Owen Teale as her husband, Brian, and Damian Lewis as syndicate partner Howard. The film has a quiet beginning as Jan follows her routine of her ordinary, disappointing life in her tiny Welsh town. Viewers will be humored to see welsh ponies milling around the streets and ducks in houses. One can’t help but laugh at Jan’s lackluster life, especially when she tries to spur her couch potato husband to life by telling him she was having an affair. All he had to say was, “but what’s for tea, love?”
This all changes when Jan overhears former racehorse owner Howard discussing his past glories on the track. Jan begins her descent into a ‘horse girl’ and sneaks clippings of horse ads and equine magazines into her cramped living quarters. Despite a lack of support from the people around her, Jan purchases a cheap mare and persuades her peanut gallery of neighbors to enter a syndicate. They breed the mare, and the resulting foal is Dream Alliance. They make it their mission to get onto the track, and the film follows this cheeky gelding in his erratic racing career.
Despite how cheesy this true story is, the film’s excellent storytelling conveys it in a believable and truly entertaining manner. Though Jan has no equine experience, multiple scenes show her experience in breeding and showing animals, which she uses to launch the syndicate. The horse scenes themselves are quite accurate, from Dream Alliance’s training gallops to the interior of the owners’ box at the track. These realistic portrayals are paired with a very healthy amount of humor, however. The curious personalities of the syndicate and of their sleepy town are aggressively Welsh and entertaining as they enter the horse world. The characters and scenes legitimately left me laughing on several occasions. Whether the characters are discussing if it’s acceptable to watch their horse be bred or the matters of hiding horses from spouses, expect content you might find out of a comedy.
Other positive aspects of the film include prime cinematography, acting, and—I cannot stress this enough—the soundtrack. Viewers won’t see any anthropomorphized horses here, and will instead be thrown into intense, convincing race scenes and slices of life in their little corner of the world. Paired with great performances by Toni Colette and others, the film is thoroughly engaging. This is also cemented and supported by the killer music by Benjamin Woodgates. Traditional folk and Celtic tunes paired brilliantly with each scene and raised my heart rate on several occasions. I truly hope the soundtrack gets a release as well!
There were some aspects that slowed the film down, however. At times the pacing was inconsistent, and I was brought from major highs to major lows. The downtime in the film wasn’t wholly engaging enough to be as great as the high-stakes, fast scenes. Relationships that could have added some meat and engagement in these parts were slightly rushed, such as the tension between Jan and her father. Giving these parts just a little more dynamism and time would have improved the overall arc and smoothness of the film. I wanted to see the same stakes as the races seen in the connections between characters and their lives, but this just fell short.
Ultimately, though, Dream Horse defied expectations and should be considered a huge success in the world of equestrian filmmaking. It took me through an array of emotions and held my attention the whole time. Despite inherently being a cheesy, feel-good story, the movie never made me roll my eyes or doubt any of the storytelling. It was funny, wholesome, and complex, all without falling into traps previous equine films had done. Rather than being a film that showed a horse saving the day and fixing everyone’s problems, it showed a horse revealing to people their problems, and made them fix their lives through actual meaningful journeys.
The answer on if I recommend this movie is a definite yes. It’s not perfect, but Dream Horse adds something new to the genre and makes for a great watch. When it releases through Bleecker Street May 1st, I encourage other people to relive the career of Dream Alliance and the wild account of crowdfunding done right.