[Screen It]

(2006) (Alison Lohman, Tim McGraw) (PG)

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Drama: An aimless teen finds purpose in her life as she clashes with her rancher father over a wild mustang she's found and wants for herself.
It's the summer and teenager Katy McLaughlin (ALISON LOHMAN) has returned to her family's Wyoming horse ranch after spending the year at a private academy where her lack of focus has resulted in her not being invited back the following year. She knows that her older brother, Howard (RYAN KWANTEN), will understand, especially since he'd rather head off to college with his girlfriend Miranda (KAYLEE DeFER) than raise quarter horses at the Goose Creek Ranch.

However, Katy's reluctant to tell her parents -- Rob (TIM McGRAW) and Nell (MARIO BELLO) -- since they've sacrificed so much to send her off to college so that she can have a life other than ranching. And with the local rodeo more interested in wild horses than the ones they breed, money is becoming increasingly tight.

Accordingly, rather than give them the bad news, she takes a horseback ride across their far-reaching lands where she not only encounters a menacing mountain lion, but also a wild mustang that saves her life from it. She eventually returns and tries to capture the horse for her own, an act that doesn't win any points with her father since he's since learned of her academic troubles and views wild horses as a threat to his business. As ranch hands Jack (DANNY PINO) and Gus (DALLAS ROBERTS) look on, Katy nevertheless tries to gain the confidence of the mustang she's named Flicka, and she feels an affinity with the horse as both are restless spirits.

As the summer wears on and Katy and her dad repeatedly clash over the horse, her school and more, the two eventually learn things about themselves and each other that soon redefine their relationship.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
One of the attractions of our annual summer vacation spot -- the Outer Banks of North Carolina -- are the wild horses of Corolla. Presumed to be the descendents of Spanish mustangs brought to the island in the late 1500's, and believed to be the oldest purebred line of horses in North America, they're smaller in number and territory than in the past. Yet, they still possess the spirit of wild independence that somehow manages, oddly enough, to soothe the savage beast in many an increasingly harried human.

Of course, not everyone views their kind that way. Take Rob McLaughlin, for instance. The owner of the family-run Goose Creek Ranch out West, he sees such wild critters as a nuisance at best and a financial danger at worst to his livelihood should they mingle with the quarter horses he's raising. His stubborn refusal to see them as anything but that is symbolic, as is the title critter in "Flicka," the latest adaptation of Mary O'Hara's 1941 novel, "My Friend Flicka."

Many are probably familiar with the classic 1943 family film of the same that starred a young Roddy McDowell as the boy who took in and cared for the wild colt, much to the dismay of his stern father. As much as the story was about the boy and his horse (a variation of the archetype "boy and his dog" tale), it also focused a great deal of time and energy on the father-son relationship where both characters grew, all because of the horse's presence.

Now we have another adaptation of O'Hara's tale, this time truncated down to just "Flicka." While the twist is that the boy is now a girl, the story and its themes are basically the same. She's Katy -- played by Alison Lohman doing everything in her might to look, act and sound like she's a teen despite actually being 27-years-old -- a fellow dreamer like her predecessor who's misunderstood by her father, this time played by country singer turned actor Tim McGraw.

He isn't of the West Point variety as was Preston Foster before him, but he still thinks his kid needs to shape up. That's particularly true since she's just been kicked out of her private boarding school, an academic luxury her family can hardly afford. Accordingly, her dad isn't happy, particularly when she keeps breaking the rules regarding a mare she's named Flicka (after what a ranch hand calls her brother's girlfriend) that saved her life from the film's lone villain, a mountain lion that appears as the catalyst for several big plot points.

Her attraction, of course, is that she sees a kindred spirit within the wild horse, a creature that's misunderstood and doesn't want to be tamed (if you somehow don't manage to catch that symbolism, it's hammered home by the girl's voice-over narration at the beginning equating her, horses and their restless spirit).

To be fair, it's not terribly heavy-handed, unlike the melodrama that starts piling up so thick that you'd swear you've stepped into some sort of western soap opera. Beyond the strained father-daughter relationship, the family business is severely in the red, the dad is thinking of selling the ranch to developers to get out of hock, and the older son doesn't know how to tell his parents that he wants out of the ranching business. Throw in some lies and deception, a mountain lion attack, and a 105-degree fever, and you have all the makings of something that should be truly grating to all but girls who love horses and tales about them.

Yet, there's something about the way in which the filmmakers -- director Michael Mayer and screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner -- have concocted all of this high family drama that makes it go down easy enough so as not to induce the gag reflex in those easily agitated by such matters.

It also doesn't hurt that the performances are generally good and sometimes heartfelt enough to temper the melodrama. Despite the obvious age issue, Lohman credibly plays teen angst, although her character is most prone to sudden emotional outbursts. McGraw is quite solid as the dad who learns to loosen up in the midst of financial and familial crises, Maria Bello once again is relegated to playing the supporting wife role (but is good doing so), and Ryan Kwanten is decent as the similarly torn other child.

An interesting side-note is that the ranch hands (played by Danny Pino and Dallas Roberts) nearly feel as if they've been lifted from "The Wizard of Oz," a point that makes you half-expect they'll show up later as other characters who'll help the protagonist on her path to self-discovery and her literal and figurative journey back home. Alas, it's a predictable voyage she and her father must take alone, and there's no fantastical element stemming from her bedridden fever.

With nary a plot development you probably won't miss from across the ranch (a fellow reviewer chuckled when I correctly cued the mountain lion's return), and enough familial angst to choke even the hardiest stallion, this movie probably won't play much beyond its target audience of families and particularly young girls. Yet, for them, it may just be the sort of ride they're interested in taking. "Flicka" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 14, 2006 / Posted October 20, 2006

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