Show me a horse movie that didn’t make me cry. Black Beauty made me openly sob. The triumph of Seabiscuit? Don’t even get me started. Heck, my throat starts to catch just even talking about Carol Ballard’s lovely classic The Black Stallion. Did Dream Horse make me cry? Well, of course it did. Of. Course. It. Did.
Except in this case, Dream Horse is less about the horse and more about the people who believe in the horse. Kind of like The Full Monty or Waking Ned Devine meets Secretariat, the story centers around Jan Vokes (the always watchable Toni Collette), a Welsh woman stuck in a mid-life rut in her depressed small town. Her kids are out of the house, her older husband Brian (Owen Teale) hasn’t worked in years and sits on the couch watching animal husbandry reality shows, and her elderly parents need her help more and more. As she splits her time between two jobs, working at a grocery store then bartending in the evening, the faded happy photos on her living room wall remind her of happier times.
One evening at the bar, she overhears a regular-guy accountant (Damian Lewis, playing a non-creep for a change) talk about his adventure of owning a race horse. A successful owner he was not (almost losing his home and family in the fiasco), but oh, the excitement of it. Jan’s interest is piqued (she’s never had a horse, but has raised prize-winning whippets and racing pigeons in her past), and she decides such a venture would be possible if she could find a bunch of people in the village to pitch in a little bit of money each week for shared ownership of a horse they can raise and train. The horse, dubbed Dream Alliance, will shoulder the burden of being the hopes and dreams of a whole village. (No pressure!)
Dream Alliance’s story would never have been told, of course, if he didn’t turn out to be a winner. He has the tried and true story arc of an unusual horse that was scoffed at by the elite and went on to shock the racing world by coming out of nowhere and being a champion. The curious thing is that Dream is almost a supporting character in his own movie. The horse is actually off at his trainer’s stables much of the film, so the focus is actually more about Jan and the villagers. After Dream Alliance faces a horrific injury, you almost worry more about Jan, Brian, and the others in town–what will they do if they don’t have Dream?
Like many of British quirky-villager-type movies, the townspeople kind of blur together as tropes (local old drunk guy, cranky bartender, sassy butcher shop clerk, hopeful classy old lady). Owen Teale as Brian makes a sweet impression, with his half-toothed smile, especially when he shows his soft side toward the horse (“I miss him,” he admits, when reverting to a couch potato state).
Then of course there is the always-grounding Toni Collette. As Jan, she has to keep the film together with her relatable character. She nails a scene where she literally can’t watch Dream in his first race after his recovery from his injury (I was practically covering my eyes as well). When Jan says that she just wants something to look forward to when she wakes up in the morning… well, that is certainly something we can all relate to as we as a society try to weather a pandemic. Dream Horse certainly checks off all the tropes of a triumphant sports movie, but I’m not going to lie, it might be just the type of movie we all need right now.