It is of course gibberish to suggest that the stories of the individual people of a small town are not worth every ounce of worth that the individual stories of their contrasting big-city folk are. We’re not here to reignite any Country Mouse vs City Mouse rivalries! Yet in the fictionalized re-tellings of human experience, you’re much more likely to be told that there are, and I quote, “8 million different stories in the Naked City,” while small-town people are more often than not lumped together into catch-all quirky tribes. A small town gets its one legend, its ye olde folk tale. Small towns breed big-cast, small-screen stories like Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, while cinematically you’ve got an entire genre unto itself of feel-good coming-togethers involving rural outcasts and their one big plan. I speak of your Waking Ned Devines, your Full Montys.
And out this weekend—a’galloping in with a great big heart embroidered on its simple corduroy sleeve—comes Dream Horse, with Toni Collette & Quirky Co. Inc. gunning for the latest crown of pastoral community uplift. A re-telling of a true-life too-good-to-be-true tale, Dream Horse sees the always watchable Collette—her otherwise no-nonsense hair zhuzhed up by a spicy silver barrette that betrays her bigger dreams—playing Jan Vokes, a barmaid and co-op check-out worker in the minuscule mining village of Cefn Fforest in Wales. Her empty-nester life has become nothing but blah, blerg, routine. Jan gets up. She feeds the geese who live in her kitchen. She works her two jobs. She watches her semi-toothless husband watch animal husbandry videos for entertainment, and she sighs the sigh of ‘oh my god is this what it’s all come to.’ We’ve all been there. (The geese in my kitchen are waving hello as I type this.)
Then one day, Jan overhears a too hoity-toity-for-his-own-good local (Damian Lewis) regaling some buds at the pub with his thrilling former life in racehorse ownership, and Jan’s barrette begins to tingle with mucho possibility. “What if I too, just a lowly barmaid in a town with too many Fs in its name, were to try my own capable hand at such an experience? Could I, Jan Vokes—with my tray like always—find a way out of this poor provincial town?” Don’t get ahead of yourselves. Prince Charming never comes til Chapter Three, and this particular peculiar silver-barretted mademoiselle has got a steep hill to climb up before she can see the trees for the Cefn Fforest.
That’s where the rest of the town comes in. Race-horses are prohibitively expensive, the dalliances of the rich and famous, and Cefn Fforest might be well-stocked in manure and rusty pipes but the rich and famous are hard to come by. So Jan becomes the woman with the plan—the Jan with the Plan, if you will. She slaps up some fliers around town and talks a ragtag bunch of locals into investing a dollop of cash here, a jar of coins there, in her dream scheme to buy a shoddy mare (thankfully Jan’s semi-toothless husband spied one for sale in the local Pennysaver), get the shoddy mare good and pregnant by a well-bred stud, and then just birth themselves out a prized colt or filly who can run, Cefn Fforest, run.
If these seem like a lot of improbable factors that need to come together for this story to go where it very clearly is going then you’re already halfway to getting what makes Dream Horse and stories like Dream Horse perennial feel-good favorites—the coming together of this unlikely nonsense is itself its own pleasure. Whether or not you know this is a true-life tale when you start the film, you will by the end of Act One, because nothing here is shaking up the template too rough or tumble. This is a gentle joy of old-fashioned storytelling, with sitcom-flavored characters (the town drunk, the lonely old woman who likes big hats, et cetera) plugging us along from point A to B to X Y Z, hitting every bell and whistle along the well-trod way.
That’s no knock—there’s no knocking here. I slipped into the warm wooly arms of Dream Horse and felt very comfy indeed. My own—and probably your own—personal childhood experiences with small-town small-minded living have no place here. Even with some small doses of darkness about this is the fantasy, made all the more fantastical for its being broadly true. There’s no doubt in my mind that if you wandered off of the main thoroughfare where the “Yay our horse won a race!” parade part of the story is happening and really followed the individual tales of the people of Cefn Fforest that there’d be far less sweetness in that telling. As I said, I come from a small town, and I know those angles only too particularly. But that’s not what we’re here watching the movie called Dream Horse for. We’re here to watch Toni Collette get a tingle in her spicy silver barrette and make the sitcom people’s rich and famous dreams come true for a hot and spicy minute, and by that broad metric Dream Horse delivers a cheerful humdinger you can’t say neigh to.
Dream Horse opens in theaters nationwide on May 21, and comes to On Demand June 11.
Header Image Source: Bleecker Street