"Flicka" is the feel-good movie of the fall, and the best family movie of the year by a country mile. Almost by default.
This version of Mary O'Hara's beloved kids' novel "My Friend Flicka" (filmed in 1943, and a TV series in 1956) is perfectly pleasant updating of the story, well-acted, nicely directed and beautifully photographed.
It's an unlikely blending of the timely, the edgy and the corny. The director of "A Home at the End of the World" (NOT a family film), the star (Alison Lohman) of "White Oleander" and "Where the Truth Lies" (NOT family films) and a country singer who can say "dad-gum" with a straight face teamed up to take this timeless story into the age of independent women and respect for wild things. They make it work.
Lohman plays Katy, a day-dreaming rebel who has just slacked her way out of the fancy Laramie, Wyoming, prep school she attends. She comes home to face the music. Mom (Maria Bello, so fine) is forgiving. Dad (Tim McGraw) isn't. He's barely hanging on to the family quarter horse ranch, and there she goes, wasting tuition.
And don't even get him started about wild horses, mustangs, or as he likes to call them -- "four-legged parasites."
Naturally, Katy stumbles across one. She chases it right into daddy's herd, and all dad-gum heck breaks loose.
Before he can sell the wild thing off, baby girl has named her "Flicka," after the Swedish word for "pretty girl." And then the trouble really begins.
Nit-pickers will make fun of the movie's big over-the-top line (you'll know it when you hear it), of the way almost every shot has a magnificent "hills are alive with the Sound of Music" backdrop. But those can be virtues, in my book.
Lohman, the "real" girl of her generation of young actors, may be a little mature for this role. But she can still break your heart. Open-faced, emotional, she sells the idea of a girl mad for horses (no stretch) and in serious conflict with her cranky dad (trickier). McGraw, the country star, isn't a good actor, but Lohman and Bello never let him seem out of his depth. They give him credibility in the acting department, and he makes them credible ranch gals.
Michael Mayer's direction is unobtrusive, letting the actors draw us to them and their emotions, building us up for a moment of terror or heartbreak. And he has a light enough touch to even make the far-fetched climax (the only real humor on the piece) pay off.
And J. Michael Muro's cinematography (he shot "Crash," and ran camera on gorgeous-looking films from "Heaven and Earth" to "Open Range") is dazzling. Pity they had to shoot part of this in New Zealand. There's precious little stunning, unspoiled open space left on this continent.
Movies that play with the heartstrings invite one of two reactions. Either you check out, right away, and cynically chuckle at their mawkishness, or you make yourself available to what they're trying to do. If you count yourself among the latter, then "cowgirl up" and see "Flicka."
It's the movie that brings out the inner 12 year-old-girl in us all.