Cale (Dakota Fanning) feeds her racehorse popsicles. The horse, whose name is Soñador, or Sonya for short, is initially her father’s project. A longtime Kentucky trainer, Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) is working with Sonya when she breaks her leg during a race. Because he’s brought little Cale with him to work that day — and she runs onto the track following the spill, to stare wide-eyed at the horse, kicking and snorting on the ground — Ben decides not to put her down, but instead, to bring her back to the barn where he can assess the damage.
Again, Cale observes big-eyed as Ben contends with his employer, the bottom-line-minded Palmer (David Morse, reprising his big meanie character from Bait). The boss says to kill the horse, that she’s ruined. Ben argues, is fired, then asks to take the mare in trade for part of the salary he’s owed. Fine, harrumphs Palmer. The deal is done. And so Cale accompanies her father and Sonya back to their own empty barn, where, she notes in voiceover early on, used have horses in it. Also leaving with Ben are the stablehands Balon (Luis Guzmán) and Manolin (Freddy Rodriguez), the latter a former jockey, injured in a fall some years ago. (The fact that Palmer thinks there are “too many Mexicans” in the stable area only underlines his badness.) And so it’s set up: the motley crew will find a way to heal the horse (they put her in a cast and a harness for lengthy weeks) and she will, in turn, inspire them.
Dreamer is, as its subtitle contends, “inspired by a true story,” one in which the real mare with the broken leg, Mariah’s Storm, was salvaged for breeding. John Gatins’ film goes a next step, as Sonya proves infertile, rendering moot Ben’s deal with old buddy Bill Sellers (Ken Howard, briefly rescued from his limiting stint on Crossing Jordan) to have the mare covered by a champion stallion. Instead, Dreamer has her resurrected as a racehorse, at least in part because cute-as-can-be Cale believes in her and yes, feeds her popsicles. The horse learns to carry the girl’s book bag in her teeth and follow her around the paddock.
Though Ben is gruff and finds it difficult to cuddle up with his adorable daughter, the movie gives him good (or least movie-like) reason. Ben is still grappling with a thorny relationship with his own dad, retired trainer Pop ((Kris Kristofferson, same as he ever was). Somewhere along the way, Ben made a wrong training decision, and has never forgiven himself, and somehow, Pop is involved in the ongoing judgment and lack of exculpation.
At the same time, Cale’s mother Lil (Elisabeth Shue), working extra hours down at the diner to make ends meet while her husband’s devoting his time to one horse, is also called on to fix the home front. Namely, she appears more than once in the kitchen, reminding Ben that he needs to attend to his daughter, that Cale loves him, that the filly Sonya has essentially saved the family. Ben, like Pop, is a man of few words, and so when Ben, after trying so hard to maintain a practical outlook, inevitably gives himself over to Cale’s dreaming, it’s hopelessly corny but also sort of okay. (It’s also worth noting that Fanning is less irritating than she has been recently, often coming close to her costar Russell’s generosity and persuasiveness.)
The bond between Cale and Sonya changes everyone’s lives, including the film’s oddest convert, the handsome and unspeakably wealthy Prince Sadir (underused Oded Fehr). He is so utterly competitive with his horse owner brother, he’s willing to finance a horse running on a recently broken leg. This after a visit from Cale, he makes her case succinctly: “My horse’ll beat every horse that shows up.”
The prince takes this assertion as truth, and puts up the entrance fee for the Breeders’ Cup, a wholly unbelievable plot turn (the horse’s record is surely spotty, having run only one claiming race — in which she placed third — in a year). But if John Gatins’ movie stretches credibility, it is syrupy sweet as can be, enhanced by gorgeous tracking shots over wide Kentucky expanses, and earnest father-daughter exchanges. And in these moments, Russell is excellent, engaging even when saddled with the bits of clichéd dialogue that initially set him against Cale: “She’s not a pet,” he grumps. Or again, he insists, “Every racehorse is for sale!” even though he knows such common wisdom just doesn’t apply to Cale’s horse.