Director: Euros Lyn
Cast: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale
Every film festival needs that one joyous crowd-pleaser of an underdog story. Unsurprisingly, the Welsh have this category covered. I remember Pride being that film at the 2014 Mumbai Film Festival. At Sundance 2020, it’s Dream Horse – another rousing Welsh working-class tale about a group of no-hopers who become miraculous winners. Oh, and a horse. And those four romantic words: Based on real life. Not to mention the fantastic Toni Collette, who has elevated the art of face-acting into a rewarding genre of its own. Put the camera on her face at any point in any movie, and her vivid expressions – her elastic eyes and lips, even the wrinkles on her forehead – have the rare ability to pull you into the immediacy of a moment, irrespective of its before and after. Her Welsh accent, too, is as much about the voice as it is about the shock of listening to Toni Collette sound virtually unrecognizable.
Collette stars as Jan Vokes in the dramatized version of the 2015 Sundance World Cinema Documentary Audience award winner, Dark Horse. Dream Horse wastes no time in depicting Jan as a middle-aged small-town barmaid who wants more from life. We don’t know much about her, except that there are plenty of unusual animals in her house (not including her gruff-lovable-bear husband Daisy) – an arrangement that suggests how she might be somewhat of a beast whisperer. So she does what any self-respecting underdog movie needs her to do: Jan starts a ragtag community fund (10 pounds a week for three years) to breed a genuine racehorse. She plans with the scrappiness of a DIY enthusiast. She buys a mare, mates her with an expensive stud, and Dream Alliance – the horse and the syndicate – is born. Naturally, Dream Alliance is a special horse. Naturally, as in the case of any self-respecting soulful-horse movie, he wins, gets injured and makes a comeback. That’s how it rolls.
But that’s the beauty of solid underdog (or underhorse, if I may) cinema – you know it’s going to be a happy ending, the miracle itself is as predictable as pineapples on pizza, yet you eagerly look forward to feeling all the hopeless lows and triumphant highs that the film promises to owe you. When those moments finally arrive, you’re so tuned into the anticipation of them that the emotions feel amplified and the heart feels vindicated. You like to think you’re prepared, but the good movies make you feel like you don’t have to be.
But Dream Horse is also a different beast as far as its theatrical mane is concerned. It’s different from, say, a Sea Biscuit or even a Secretariat – classic horse movies that concentrate as much on the craft of racing (trainers, jockeys, opponents and scale) as the unlikeliness of its owners. It’s always about the humans finding a sense of purpose in the horse, but these films clearly denote a specialized, elite profession that can accommodate only the most ‘privileged’ of underdogs – those with either money or legacy to lose – far removed from the blue-collar culture of betting junkies. Dream Horse makes the ecosystem accessible by choosing a story that turns the commoner into the owner – that is, the people who watch the races become the races. A little like The Full Monty, the syndicate is comprised of a motley crew of stakeholders, where each “type” of person (retired widow, college kid, the village drunk, corporate slave, annoying intellectual, cynic) is represented so that the lofty dream is compressed into a hard, bleacher-class hobby. The high of watching the yous and mes crash the posh owner gallery of a derby to rowdily cheer on their ‘investment’ is an image not routinely associated with the high-risk, upper-class business of the horse-racing. The horse, in a sense, is a physical embodiment of a low-budget indie film punching beyond its weight on the box-office stage.
What this does is immerse the viewer into an attainable universe beyond the distant thrills of course action and ringside politics. The film focuses solely on the locals – not their children, not the naysayers, not the money, jockeys, journalists or star trainers – in search of a second chance. They want to experience the kind of feelings reserved for people above them in the social hierarchy, and achieve the sort of things that entertain the people in the stands. The search for identity trumps the desire of money. At one point, Jan, looking her horse in the eye, remarks that this is the first time she has felt like more than somebody’s wife or daughter. It’s a cheesy scene, but it’s grilled to melted perfection. Though it largely features the personal narrative of Jan and, to an extent, a scarred syndicate veteran named Howard (Billions’ Damian Lewis), the film manages to rebrand the individualism of dreaming as a therapeutic group activity. A sense of community is ingrained into its very core: It’s rare for movie protagonists to be both the athletes and the fans at once. Even when an argument threatens to break out, it takes less than a passionate monologue to bring everyone back on the same page. They’ve seen too much of nothingness in life to bicker over their sudden somethingness. In many ways, Dream Horse punctures the exclusivity of sport by crowd-funding its pain and pleasure. The voices are infectious, and the cleverly choreographed suspense of the money shots feels strangely inclusive rather than aspirational. The supporting cast is charming – and clued-in to the self-awareness of caricatureship. In another universe, the indomitable Gauls of a remote village have found a new magic potion.