Fanning and Russell

I'm pretty sure that Dakota Fanning is some kind of alien. Remember that sci-fi mini-series she was in a couple years back called Taken? I now think it was a documentary about how she was abducted by extraterrestrials and swapped with a doppelganger with extraordinary thespianic powers, and it was used as some sort of smoke-and-mirrors cover story. In Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story, the chameleonic child star again holds her own against actors three, four and five times her age, putting her amazing, Vulcan-like/Children Of The Damned control of her emotions to work in this comfortably formulaic family drama about a girl and her horse.

The story is simple; Against all odds, the very grown-up acting 11-year-old Cale Crane (Fanning) enters in the Breeders' Cup an injured thoroughbred previously slated for destruction by a mean, mean moneyman (a disappointingly one-note David Morse). Does the horse recover? Does the family become closer? Do the little guys triumph? Perhaps they shoot the horse and put the child in foster care after losing the farm in the European version, but come on -- this is America. Cue the rousing score as the horses round the bend and cross the third act climax, clap on cue and go home happy.

What grown-ups does Fanning -- "Hollywood's Great Acting Equalizer" -- show up here? Sky High star Kurt Russell, for one, who got his start as a kid on this kind of prefab fare at Disney in the 1960's. As Cale's father, Ben, he is, as always, natural and professional. However, in his scenes opposite Fanning, a deceptively diminutative pro whom other actors might treat as a precocious trained animal or an ornate mechanical prop, Russell works quite hard to treat the girl with respect as he attempts to keep his own game fresh. Perhaps the script, by first-time director John Gatins, was written for a child of lesser talents than Fanning in mind, as she seems to be acting beyond what is written.

What is not written is a solid enough part for Elisabeth Shue, who plays Fanning's mother, Lily. The impression that Gatins gives us early on is that Shue is an alienated step to Fanning, like she was in decerebrated dud, Hide and Seek. Lily is supposed to be a pillar for the family, but she ends up as little more than background, and Ben's relationship with her is similarly underplayed. Gatins, who wrote Dreamer for his Coach Carter producer Brian Robbins, does give more mind to the strained relationship that Ben has with his pop, Pop (Kris Kristofferson). Ben doesn't want Cale following a path that will lead her to where he is, broke and regretful, while Pop wants her to become what her spirit seeks.

It's nice to see a typical heavy like Puerto Rican actor Luis Guzmán playing a non-stereotypical role (as a horse trainer) here, but I can't help but think that Gatins missed a huge opportunity by choosing to make him a big teddy bear with little more to do than call attention to the fact that Cale doesn't get the right kind of attention from her father. You can see that missed potential in the subplot about his fellow trainer, played by Freddy Rodriguez, who is a former jockey who overcomes his fear of failure.

One school of thought dictates that children under a certain age cannot really act, only react. That brings to mind the stories of the lengths to which one of Shirley Temple's directors is reported to have gone to get her and her co-stars to behave -- by putting them in a refrigerated black box if they didn't. Fanning is too old to have to require that kind of conditioning, though, as she is really acting, even if some people would rather see her acting more like the child she is and less like the adult she is being molded into.

Sure, Dreamer is predictable, but it is also warm and inspiring. And come on -- who says that a movie that fails to intricately explore our many post-modern shades-of-grey has to be automatically deemed infantile and summarily dismissed? Instead of looking down on movies that encourage us to follow our dreams and believe in the power of goodness and stick by our families (no matter how damaged), why can't we just savor them for the hope they attempt to foster? Of course, our dreams will sometimes fail us, good will not always triumph over the not-so-good and our families will inevitably disappoint us in some way, but the fact that we go to these movies at all is in direct contrast to this Fuddyduddian nihilist view.

Okay, maybe movies like this aren't all that intellectually stimulating, but what's the problem with smiling quietly in the dark for a couple hours? Do we need to feel ashamed for wanting that? I feel a little like Bill Murray at the end of Scrooged right now, like I'm crying out for the Christmas spirit to stay with me all year long. As Harvey Fierstein would say, "Is that so wrong?" I say it ain't, and if DreamWorks wants to continue to sculpt itself in the same family-friendly image of Disney, they should keep making stuff like this, grumpy-faced poopy-heads be damned.

And you keep it up, too, Dakota, because the world needs another Shirley Temple -- or even another Jodie Foster -- a proxy daughter and sister and kid-next-door to make us proud and help us temporarily distance ourselves from these uncertain times. Call that hokey if you want, but feeling that way is only hokey if we deny ourselves the permission to be the dreamers we go to movies like Dreamer to cheer on.