The thing about “feel good” movies is that, to work, they’ve got to flirt with making you feel awful. Edge of tears, disappointment, life’s pitfalls turning into potholes, the works.
And that’s never truer than in feel good movies about horses. We all know what can go wrong with horses you’re trying to race.
So a word to the wise about “Dream Horse,” about a Welsh village that pools its cash and breeds a racing stallion. Don’t watch it in your dressy face mask. This adorable tear-jerker is made for disposable ones.
It’s a movie whose winning warmth, plucky “up from nothing” story and genteel rowdiness are infectious. But its glory is in another gem of performance from Toni Collette. As Jan, the co-op clerk who decides that a race horse might be just the ticket to get herself, her marriage and her aging, dying town out of a rut, she leads our emotions in every gasp of unadulterated joy, every moment of slack-jawed horror, with every tear.
Jan Vokes is the sort of woman not quite resigned to this is “all there is.” She raises a duck, geese, goats and a wolfhound because her two kids have “flown the nest.” Husband Brian (Owen Teale) lost his job, and enough of his teeth to notice, years before. So Jan works two jobs, tending bar down at the club evenings.
That’s where she overhears the Cardiff tax advisor Howard (Damian Lewis, wonderful) talk about the glory days when he was in a syndicate, an “owner” (one of several) of a racehorse, something rumor has it almost ruined him and nearly wrecked his marriage.
Ownership via syndicate? “It’s more affordable than you think.”
Jan gets a wild hare to buy a mare.
“I’m going to breed a race horse,” she tells layabout Brian as she prints up fliers, struggles to win over Howard to the cause and recruit local “types” to join in. There’s old age pensioner Maureen (Siân Phillips), barfly and local “character” Kirby (Karl Johnson, of course), pedantic councilor Maldwyn (Anthony O’Donnell) and others.
They dream of riches, but Howard, thrilled as he is to have skin in the game again, sets them straight. “There’s less than a one percent chance it’ll ever win a race,” he says. If you’re buying in, “do it for the hwyl,” a Welsh lark and a laugh. And so they do.
The Neil McKay script that Euros Lyn directs hits the stations-of-the-cross of feel good movies, thus the “I need something to look forward to when I get up in the morning” speech, the “whole wide world out there” that punching out of your comfort zone brings.
It’s got horse racing movie staples, but skips over the hoariest. We see the naming of the newborn (“Dream Alliance”), watch the cute foal bottle-fed, grasp how Jan and Brian look at the critter as a beloved pet, and glimpse his uncertain start in training and in racing.
Nicholas Farrell of “Chariots of Fire” is the wealthy trainer who journeys from dismissive snob to “He’s got something…spirit” in a flash. And there’s an upper class rival who doesn’t really add up to being the villain here, nobody is.
Because “Dream Horse” is about the fractious “syndicate,” competing agendas, family discord and the triumphs and tragedies of race horse ownership.
We sit in on giddy sing-alongs, tearful choruses of the Welsh national anthems — both of them, including “Delilah,” a hit for native son Tom Jones.
Characters take sentimental inner journeys and tears are shed.
It’s not “Seabiscuit,” but plucky winners like this are a great reason to get back into the cinema-going habit.
Just remember my advice about the face mask. You can’t “feel good” without a few tears.
MPA Rating: PG for language and thematic elements
Cast: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Siân Phillips, Karl Johnson, Anthony O’Donnell
Credits: Directed by Euros Lyn, script by Neil McKay. A Bleecker St/Topic Studios release.
Running time: 1:53