As an advocacy piece for the protection of America's overpopulation of wild horses, "Running Wild" makes a few meaningful points. But as a dramatic telling of one woman's fight against equine politics, misguided self-interests and federal bureaucracy, the film, directed by Alex Ranarivelo ("The Dog Lover"), takes a largely simplistic, heavy-handed approach to a potentially deep and vital story.
When pampered Stella Davis (Dorian Brown Pham) discovers that husband J.T., who was recently killed in a car crash, had secretly mortgaged their vast Double Diamond Ranch to keep the ailing property afloat, she must come up with six million bucks in 90 days or hand the place over to the bank.
Although seemingly in the ozone all the years she lived there with J.T., Stella gets a sudden burst of girl power, ancestral pride and horse sense, and decides she must save this California ranch, which has been in her family for four generations. If you believe all this, I have a ranch to sell you.
But when Stella and her hunky ranch manager, Bratt (Jason Lewis, evoking a 40ish Clint Eastwood), come upon a herd of sickly wild mustangs grazing on the property, she decides to buck the system — and the wary Bratt — and enlist in the Prison Rehabilitation Equine Program (PREP), which allows a quintet of local convicts (including Tommy Flanagan and Tommy Williamson) to work each day at the ranch training these needy horses. The criminals even get to name their favorite steeds, which is sweet, no?
Enter animal rights extremist Meredith Parish (a great-looking
Meredith, who believes all horses should be free to run in the wild — but has perhaps a wider agenda — mounts a noisy public campaign to shut down Stella and her PREP program. But can she? Two guesses.
Events play out in ways that are often convoluted and strain credibility, particularly when it comes to the story's financial aspects, character intentions, ranch procedure, equine training, a climactic horse auction and the administration of PREP, which is an actual, federally funded program.
In addition, what was the deal between Stella and J.T., a seemingly messed-up guy with a drinking problem and bad management skills? Given Stella's barely-there mourning of the husband she clearly let run roughshod over her legacy (why?), a speech about their marital history was duly in order.
A stronger, more engaging actress than Pham might have helped provide a more empathetic center to the proceedings. Still, she and her fellow cast members can do only so much with their thinly drawn characters and such eye-rolling lines as "Is there a burr in your saddle, cowboy?" and "You're a hell of a woman, Stella."
And just when you think the film has gratefully escaped its most inevitable turn, it goes there, adding one final kernel of corn to this ho-hum horse tale.
Rating: PG, for thematic content, language and brief suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD