The casual and lovely Dream Horse tells the true story (previously revealed in the Sundance prize-winning documentary Dark Horse) of Jan Vokes and her Welsh community coming together for shared purpose. Played by Toni Collette,Vokes muddles through in her idyllic working class village until she sparks with the idea to raise a racing horse. The exorbitant cost of the endeavor leads her to recruit the financial help of the entire town, uniting everyone not only through a common goal but a shared dream of a brighter existence beyond their simple lives.
From there, you might expect where Dream Horse is going to go. A tender upstart narrative with strategically plotted setbacks, bolstered by righteous resolve and the spirit of their mission; after a rousing finish, text fills the screen as an epilogue detailing the real events that followed. And you wouldn’t be wrong, but you might just be underestimating Dream Horse’s ability to be one of the more enjoyable examples of a familiar kind of movie.
The film follows close to the formula for similar underdog crowd-pleasing fare, with a refined sense of what makes such films work and without the layer of cynicism of many that have failed. Throughout, the film makes minor observations about wealth inequity, including Damian Lewis as a more conflicted middle class finance associate. Its beats are predictable, even without its true life origins, and that’s just fine. The challenge of this kind of film is never innovation or invention (though a dash of irony wouldn’t hurt), but effectiveness. If it works, it makes pleasing the audience look easy; Dream Horse is one of its kind that doesn’t break a sweat in providing you with something joyous. Satisfying, innocuous predictability has rarely been so appealing.
And there are few performers as capable of providing such honest charm as Collette. Here the actress uplifts with humble personability and genuine feeling, offering a performance as balanced as the film she leads. For director Euros Lyn, her performance presents a stabilizing force to match the assured rhythms of the film itself. As the performance doesn’t lean too hard into kitchen sink emotionalism, neither does the film. Capturing Jan’s revitalized marriage (with husband Brian played by Owen Teale) and her emerging sense of leadership, Collette doesn’t betray the film’s modest heart. But though Collette may be the film’s headliner, surrounding her is a bountiful ensemble filling Dream Horse to capacity with humanity and a delightful degree of humor that doesn’t tip over into cartoonishness.
An unassuming entertainment that calibrates its earnestness flawlessly, Dream Horse is sweet without being sinkingly saccharine or maudlin. Instead, Lyn earns the film’s homegrown narrative heft by making a film about communal effort, hope, and pride, one that’s all the more authentically rousing for keeping each of its small components grounded in those simple themes. Neither cold or perfunctory, Dream Horse makes good on its promise of warming hearts through telling the success of a collective effort, with its presentation of hope as a shared driving force given a compassionate lens that’s difficult to overlook. There is beauty in its storytelling simplicity, even if you feel you have seen it before.