Poor Flicka. Today's new version is a swell retelling of the Mary O'Hara book that became a 1943 film and 1956 television series. But it's likely to get short shrift, coming just a year after the all-too-similar (though far less worthy) "Racing Stripes" and "Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story."
Screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, who adapted the upcoming "Eragon," transform the story from a boy whose love for his horse helps him mature, to a girl whose love for her horse helps her father realize how much this stubborn, difficult and determined child is, in fact, like him.
The predictability of the plot also might suggest an equine Lassie," as the horse proves heroic in twice saving the girl's life. But Michael Mayer's sensitive direction, J. Michael Muro's breathtaking cinematography of horses galloping in the rugged Wyoming mountains and surprising depth from a strong cast can get even a cynic's tears pressing at the ducts.
At the heart of the tale, Alison Lohman brings a tender naturalness to Kate, a teen struggling to reconcile what her parents want her to be and what she longs to become. When she discovers a wild mustang in the woods, she is determined to bring it back and tame it over the objections of her intimidating dad, played by country music star Tim McGraw.
Dad doesn't want a wild mustang muddying the bloodlines of his well-bred quarter horses. The met aphor couldn't be clearer. Kate increasingly identifies with the mustang, which Dad says doesn't belong on the ranch. Kate, who has been struggling with school, wants more than anything to run the ranch - a job her father has envisioned for her brother, Howard (the appealing Ryan Kwanten). But unbeknownst to Dad, Howard has his sights set on college, not the ranch.
McGraw proves his sharply etched dad in "Friday Night Lights" was no fluke. He brings strength and charisma to this dad. Similarly, Maria Bello's vibrant delivery transforms the stereotype of the supportive wife/mom into a force of her own.
As a fellow rancher who has sold out to housing developers, Jeffrey Nordling offers the smarmy turn he does so well, without slipping into unlikability. And Dallas Roberts imbues even the small part of a ranch hand who comes up with the name Flicka - meaning pretty girl - with shades of a back story that keep you wondering about his feelings for Kate.
Mayer's last directing effort was "A Home At The End of the World," which explored the power and delicacy of relationships. In "Flicka," he shows that when you turn the camera on feelings, you can mine gold out of even seemingly stock characters and situations.
This is the kind of movie that many families are looking for, but all too rarely receive.
Rating: PG for mild language. Director: Michael Mayer. Cast: Tim McGraw, Maria Bello, Alison Lohman and Jeffrey Nordling. Running time: 94 min.