I love horses, and especially the wild variety. I got some on my shower curtain, on my desk, on my calendar and on one of my pillows. I admire their grace, their strength, their freedom. To me, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is one of the most enthralling films ever made, all genres included. The love and respect I have for these majestic creatures has no doubt seeped into this review, where I offer a highly favourable assessment of “Flicka”. But even for those who don’t really feel one way or another about horses, this new film from Michael Mayer (following his first feature, A Home at the End of the World) has enough going for it on the human level that you’re bound to be touched someway, somehow by this delightful story of a girl and her beloved four-legged friend.

Katie McLaughlin (Alison Lohman) lives on the family ranch alongside a mountain range in Wyoming. We first see her as she hands in a blank essay paper at the end of the school year at a Laramie boarding school, oblivious to time while thinking of the wide open spaces where she truly feels alive. The blank essay doesn’t sit well with her strict father Rob, played by Tim McGraw, who believes that she should rein in her dreaminess and concentrate on her studies so she can go to college. Out riding one day, Katie notices a wild and proud black filly. Seeing something of herself in the creature, she names the horse Flicka and longs to ride her someday. But her dad will have none of it: he sees mustangs as a nuisance and a financial hazard, puts the horse in a pen and plans to sell it to a rodeo. Katie will not be denied that easily, though: without her father’s consent, she sneaks off at night to connect with the horse and over time establishes a powerful bond with Flicka. When the day comes that the horse is taken away from her, there isn’t much that will stop Katie in her journey to reclaim her kindred spirit.

Along the way there are alternately playful and touching moments with her mom Nell (Maria Bello) and her big brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten). While there’s conflict stemming from Katie’s perilous determination to be with Flicka, the McLaughlins are very much a close-knit, loving family. There are several lovely and heartfelt moments between Nell and Rob, as well as between Katie and her parents, and there’s a scene between Katie and the college-bound Howard that will really tug at your heartstrings. It captures in a couple sentences the changing-but not diminishing- essence of the ties that bind. The script by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, an excellent modernization of a 1941 novel by Mary O’Hara, has a little humor, a lot of wit and a great deal of resonance and emotional sincerity.

The film is well served by a top-rate group of actors. Lohman once again displays the ability, complemented by her petite figure and vividly youthful looks, to convincingly play someone a decade younger than her actual age of 27. She gives Katie a forceful and resolute demeanor that never veers into rebellion for rebellion’s sake. The film is book ended by her narrating the essay I mentioned earlier, and her words embrace and celebrate the beauty of the American West with a quiet but strong vitality. Lohman was recently miscast in Where the Truth Lies, but her work in White Oleander was superb, and she’s also had memorable roles in Matchstick Men and Big Fish. McGraw looks like a keeper. After his impressive debut as an out-of-control, yet multidimensional, football dad in Friday Night Lights, here he plays a stern man who believes in doing things his way but comes to treasure his daughter’s vibrant spirit. Bello is a lively, buoyant presence while Kwanten, an Australian actor with an extensive soap opera past Down Under, just might be a name to watch with his Colin Farrell-like rogue looks. I also want to point out Aaron Zigman’s inspired score, well in tune to what happens on the screen but never too intrusive, and mention the charming photo montage in the closing credits. It’s a very nice salute to girls, women and the horses they hold dear, as well as a lovely nod to country life. Mayer has created a wholesome film that will deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as family classics like Old Yeller (1957), The Black Stallion (1979) and Duma (2005). “Flicka” captures the same kind of magic between humans and animals. It’s a rather simple story, but beautifully told, and I highly recommend it.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay