Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Dream Horse

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Dream Horse is exactly what it advertises itself: an unabashed crowd pleaser that wears its heart on its sleeve, fully aware of its cheesiness and making no attempt to hide it. The result is a film that, while it may not win any awards, leaves you with a smile on your face and perhaps a few tears in your eyes as well. 

Based on the true story chronicled in the 2015 documentary Dark Horse, Dream Horse follows Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, good as ever), a grocery bagger and barkeep living in a poor mining town in Wales. Jan and her husband, Brain (Owen Teale, turning in a wonderful performance), have been stuck in a slump, going through the same motions every day. Upon overhearing Howard (Damian Lewis) in the pub reliving his glory days as part of a racehorse syndicate, Jan, who used to raise livestock and racing pigeons, begins to formulate an idea. 

This idea involves buying a broodmare, impregnating her, and breeding a racehorse, then roping members of the town together to form a syndicate to help pay for the horse’s expenses. After initial balking, Jan is joined by several other colorful town members, including Howard, each offering charm and a bit of broad humor. From there, they embark on the quest to raise their foal, dubbed Dream Alliance. 

The rest of Dream Horse is utterly, completely predictable, but is buoyed by such a solid cast and made with such enthusiasm that it’s hard to get annoyed. To its credit, director Euros Lyn (director of some excellent Doctor Who and Daredevil episodes, as well as the eerie Torchwood: Children of Earth) avoids leaning too hard into the more obvious beats, so that the emotion lands without being overwrought. It helps that Lyn has such a fine cast at his disposal, who sell their joy and distress with such genuineness that you want to clap along with them.

The film focuses more on the human aspect than the horse, probably a smart move seeing as horses can only emote so much. Jan and Brian feel the old spark again, but Howard and his wife, Angela (Joanna Page), have a falling out: last time Howard joined a racing syndicate, it went under and they almost lost the house. However, by the end of the film, this has all been swept under the rug and everyone gets a tidy, happy ending.

Despite horses’ general lack of facial expressions, the scenes with Dream still play well. (Though it was highly amusing to see the tricks they used to get Dream to act unruly. Oh, no, he’s not facing the right way to start the race! Well, maybe if the jockey let go of his mouth… But to a non-equestrian viewer, these would be nonissues.) Toni Collette even sells the emotional monologues to the horse as he nibbles at her (probably peppermint-lined) sweater pocket. (Most of my verbal interactions with my horses, on the other hand, consist of, “Stop that,” “Don’t bite me,” and, “Stop spooking, there’s nothing there.”) Editor Jamie Pearson skillfully ratchets up the tension during the races even as you know the ending, cutting between spectators and horses in just the right places to keep you from getting too bored. 

It’s nothing groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean Dream Horse is bad. Sometimes a predictable feel-good movie can be just what you need, and by the time the film ends with the cast singing together along with their real-life counterparts, if you don’t feel tempted to join them, you might want to reconsider your life choices.

Dream Horse Trailer

Dream Horse played at the 2021 Atlanta Film FestivalComing to theaters May 21st.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

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