Under Bush, slow-motion neglect has been replaced by a vigorous assault on mustangs. The Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse removal policy has escalated ferociously.
— Deanne Stillman, Slate (16 February 2005)
I quickly learned that horses aren’t performers, but rather really beautiful, intuitive animals. The last thing they were going to care about is where I want them to look when I yell “action!”
— Michael Mayer
Flicka ends with a series of still photos, all smiling girls and their pretty horses. If you’re a girl and you love horses — and chances are you are if you’re watching this movie — you can go home feeling very happy indeed.
The rest of Flicka, the 90-or-so-minute movie that precedes this coda, is uneven and sometimes corny, but it makes that one, wholly disarming point. It presents a specific connection between a girl, Katy (Alison Lohman, who’s too old to play a 15-year-old), and her most beauteous filly named Flicka. The movie features enough allusions to Mary O’Hara’s novel (published in 1941) that it warrants the title; this includes an awkwardly inserted “Swedish” ranch hand who carefully explains the meaning of the word “flicka” in case you haven’t reread the book lately (though again, if you’re at the movie, it’s likely you know it by heart). My Friend Flicka the book, like the 1943 movie starring Roddy McDowell, concerned a boy of Swedish immigrant stock named Ken, and so you’ll be appreciating that the new movie has adjusted the gender of Flicka’s savior.
Katy is first pictured failing to write a single word in her high school final exam notebook because she’s daydreaming about her dad’s Wyoming quarterhorse ranch (“I live on top of the world!”). She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s imagining the wild horse she’ll meet on her return home for the summer. Flicka is a mustang, fierce and magnificent. Once free to roam the American West, the mustangs are now diminishing in number and restricted to certain areas, as cow ranchers need the land and poachers in helicopters kill horses for meat. No surprise, most of the folks fighting Bush-era bills trying to roll back a 1971 law that protects mustangs are women.
This battle is currently ongoing in Congress (the House voted recently I n favor of the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, banning the killing of horses for consumption; the Senate has yet to vote). The lush metaphors of Flicka takes the saga in another direction, though make much the same point: mustangs need and deserve protection. To this end, the movie lines up a series of beloved conventions: Katy and Flicka forge a bond (at least in Katy’s mind) that only grows stronger when her dad Rob (Tim McGraw) protests. He’s looking out for his little girl, of course, but she sees it as an effort to curtail her independent spirit and deny the legitimacy of her affection for the horse she was born to ride. (This movie loses Flicka’s mother, also deemed “loco,” the genetic source of the filly’s bad temperament and parallel to the stubborn parent.)
The movie takes Katy’s view of the world, soliciting your sympathy for even her not-so-smart decisions. You appreciate her dedication when she sneaks out late at night to train the filly in a corral, alone), then works on the ranch and on her make-up schoolwork by day. (This means she sleeps through a few afternoons, lovely and huddled over her composition book, struggling to come up with an essay that might let her pass the year.) And you like that her mom takes her side. Nell (Maria Bello) is the woman Katy might be some day: she rides as well as the guys and looks at home in worn jeans and creased boots, but she also keeps the books, cooks dinner, and wears a gauzy white skirt while washing Katy’s long flowing hair in the great outdoors.
Most of Nell’s time, however, is spent with Rob, gently pointing out his obduracy whenever he runs headlong into his reflection and future in Katy. For while Rob believes that Katy’s older brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten) wants to take on the responsibility of the family ranch, where really, Howard only wants to go East, on a college scholarship. That, and, go anywhere he can follow Katy’s wealthy classmate Miranda (Kaylee DeFer). This interest leads him to go along with the girls’ scheme to gain access to Flicka, sold off to the local rodeo in order to set up a crisis and — no small thing — a bit of gender dragging for Katy. In order to ride Flicka in the “wild horse ride,” she has to play the boy her father always wanted — courageous and cocky.
Nell seems to be the only one to see Katy and Rob are “the same.” “When are you gonna look at her,” she asks her husband, “and see that she’s you?” Dad does raise a couple of other questions, like, is the horse ranch viable economically? What exactly is he passing on to his daughter, if indeed he goes along with this scheme to hand off responsibility to the child who actually wants it?
But the film isn’t about being practical or having ready, reasonable answers for such questions. It’s about wild horses representing a special sort of speed, force, and freedom, beyond Wild West shows and shootouts and men with no names. Those girls keep their horses in their backyards, at stables across town, and in their dreams. They don’t need this huffing-and-puffing, straining-to-please movie to sustain their faith in that force. They know just how it works.